The career path of nursing came to Phil Perry as a second chance.
Financial stress forced Perry to give up his pursuit of a undergraduate degree in physical therapy, but after working as a care giver he began to see the possibilities of being an RN.
"My grandmother was a role model in my life. She was also a nurse," says Perry, who was selected as this year's Champions of Healthcare non-physician practitioner award.
After attending Northwestern Technical College in North Georgia, Perry did rotations at Hutcheson, Erlanger and Parkridge hospitals before joining CHI Memorial Hospital, where he has worked for 10 years.
Five years ago, Perry transitioned to a new role as case manager in the emergency department and clinical decision unit at CHI Memorial. He had been working in the ER as a nurse.
"We see a great deal of homeless patients," he says. "Just seeing the needs daily and seeing people struggle with basic needs like housing, shelter, food and clothing, barriers to health care, mentally and physically; I wanted to make a difference on a greater level."
On a daily basis Perry works to find medical equipment, home health, hospice care, behavioral and mental health services, as well as treatment for addiction and dependency, for vulnerable patients who often have neither insurance nor a way to pay for services.
"When you see so much need and the people that despite their best efforts continue to fall through the cracks, you know there is a better way," says Perry. "Most of us could find ourselves in a perilous situation without insurance or transportation or not having access to physical and mental healthcare. I believe we have a responsibility to look on people with compassion."
Perry also represents Memorial in a pilot program to assist the mentally ill and chronically homeless in Chattanooga. The Frequent Users System Engagement (FUSE) is a community coalition working to eliminate homelessness through a targeted housing and services approach.
Winner: Phil Perry, RN.
* Accomplishments: Phil Perry compassionately cares for Chattanooga’s most vulnerable population daily as a case manager in the emergency department at CHI Memorial and works closely with organizations across the community to find housing for the homeless and treatment for the dependent.
"No one is a stronger advocate and voice for the underserved," Lisa Mccluskey, one of Perry's colleague's at CHI Memorial, wrote in her nominating letter for the Champions of Healthcare award. "Although it could be easy to get discouraged, Phil remains positive about this work. He believes if people take the time to look deeper at the problem and find a way to give their time and attention to it, our community would experience real and lasting change."
Even with a stronger safety net, Perry said a great deal is still left up to the individual, and many find themselves taking one step forward and then two steps back, for one reason or another.
"We need unconditional positive regard for people — there is no leeway for judgment here," he says. "Chronic homelessness is a disease that will not go away until we address it as a society. Doing this work has made me examine my own views and preconceived ideas about mental health issues and homelessness. This is a disease, and in my heart I do not believe that anyone would choose this path or choose to be in addiction."
One of his greatest joys, he added, is seeing patients overcome their obstacles and illness.
Not long ago a patient who he had helped a few ago saw him out and recognized him. The encounter gave him a glimpse into his work's impact.
The patient had been struggling with opioid addiction but didn't have insurance. Perry found a facility where he could get treatment. He went through the program and two years later is still clean with a good job and is taking care of a family member.
"That was very rewarding," Perry says. "From time to time we are reminded that we do make a difference. That is what helps us keep going when we find obstacles that are very tough."