Compassionate care inspires student to pursue pediatric nursing career

Anana Upton

Growing up, Anana Upton, BS’21, spent endless hours in hospitals as her younger brother underwent care. That experience spurred a passionate drive in her to elevate the quality of health care available to underserved communities while also educating people about their medical choices and affording them the dignity they deserve. The Chicago native and Peabody graduate went back to the hospital—and to Vanderbilt—following her dream to become a pediatric nurse practitioner. She is now a School of Nursing PNP–Primary Care student who will finish her program in August.

“Vanderbilt School of Nursing has been quite honestly one of the most fulfilling experiences I have ever had in my life so far,” Upton says. “It’s such a confirmation of everything I’ve ever wanted and known was meant for me.” After graduating with a degree in child development from Peabody College of education and human development in May 2021, Upton enrolled directly in the master of science in nursing program at VUSN, becoming the youngest in her cohort and making an impression on faculty, staff and students.

“Anana has proven herself to be a passionate advocate for others in her community, and I am continuously amazed by her drive to make a global difference,” says Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Feylyn Lewis, PhD, BA’09.

Now in the second year of the program, Upton is an RN and doing a clinical rotation in her pediatric specialty in the same Chicago hospital where her brother was treated. She also is president of the school’s Global Health and Environmental Justice Club and has joined NurseCorps, so she will work for a federally qualified health center or medically underserved clinics as an NP after finishing her program.

Now that she’s back in Chicago, Upton is also a caregiver for her father. She often has to balance her studies with caregiving, and admits the classwork and clinical shifts can be mentally and physically challenging. Yet she takes strength from the community she has found at VUSN and from the expertise she is building.

“I have had amazing faculty, some who feel more like personal mentors, reminding us why we are there in the first place—which is to help people,” she says.

Practicing Empathy

Among all the learning opportunities Upton has had as a nursing student, being able to practice empathy and compassion in a clinical setting has been perhaps the most gratifying of them all.

“I remember in my first week of nursing school, we learned how to do bed baths. That was as simple as something we’d learn. Yet it’s a time where you really are able to restore dignity to a person who might be going through one of the most traumatic times of their lives,” Upton says. “Things that are so seemingly simple can be such a reflection of humanity, which I think is the core of the nurse I want to be.”

Upton presenting on her team’s evidence-based research project in their first year at the School of Nursing.

Upton says the nursing profession encapsulates nearly every aspect of the values she holds dear. “When you are trained as a nurse, you not only learn how to calculate medication doses or take vital signs, but you are also constantly reminded to care for your patients through the lens of respect for humanity as a whole,” she says. “Although I already came into VUSN with a strong sense of personhood in my conviction to make my approach to health care holistic and personalized, many of the classes that I have taken at VUSN have turned those plans into habits.

“For example, one of my VUSN faculty mentors–Dr. Carol Ziegler–who is also the adviser for the Global Health and Environmental Justice group, has truly empowered me to feel that my voice matters, that nursing doesn’t just stop at direct patient care, and that we can truly make a difference when we continue to advocate for those who are otherwise ignored within the complicated health care system that people are often forced to navigate.”

Upton knows firsthand about the challenge that complicated health care system presents to people. “I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, an area which is predominantly made up of underrepresented populations with a significant lack of resources compared to other areas of the city,” she says. “I absolutely feel that being back in Chicago gives me a leg up, in that I am able to understand the nuances of the populations with which I work. Practicing from a place that I am familiar with allows me to be better in-tune with the social determinants of health that may be contributing to a patient’s overall outcomes, and how we can address those from unique perspectives. And not to mention, it’s always fun to mention that I was a camp counselor at some of the popular museums here in Chicago during high school; the kids I see absolutely love to talk about that!”

Nursing Magic

Choosing pediatrics was a no-brainer, Upton says. “When I was a child and didn’t quite understand social standards, my mom would tell me that I would always drop everything, run up to people’s babies, and try to hug and love on them no matter where I was,” she says. “My family also used to joke and say that I had ‘baby radar,’ and that I always had a keen eye for detecting any child within my vicinity!”

And why nursing?

“When my little brother was in the hospital after having a very complex surgery, my family life was hectic. My parents slept in shifts at the hospital, my little brother looked so small and fragile in his big hospital bed, and I remember being so confused as to what was happening,” Upton says. “But there was always one nurse who sat with me whenever I would visit the hospital, who took time out of her busy schedule to set me up with a movie or Play-Doh after she made sure that my little brother was all set.

“I will always remember the impact that she had on me at a time where things felt so overwhelming and big, and how she was able to soothe away the fear in a way that felt nothing short of magic. That was when I knew that my calling was to do what she does, that I wanted to be a part of creating that magic for other children and their families.”

Learn more about Anana Upton online at 

Tagged Under:

Features Summer 2023