A Legacy of Love — The Carolina Nursing Katherine Nell Acierno Women’s Health/Doula Scholars Program

By Michele Lynn

Our community’s light dimmed last fall when Katherine Nell Acierno, an undergraduate nursing student at the UNC School of Nursing, passed away after being hit by a car. In her 21 years of life, Katherine —who was to receive her nursing degree in May 2022—left behind a brilliant legacy filled with love, compassion, and friendship.

That legacy will endure thanks to the Carolina Nursing Katherine Nell Acierno Women’s Health/Doula Scholars Program, which was established by Katherine’s parents, Vince and Beth Acierno, her brother Avery, and other devoted family members and friends. This program honors her memory and recognizes her professional passion. 

Katherine Nell Acierno (2000 – 2021)

The Doula Scholars Program will support Carolina Nursing students who, like Katherine, serve as doulas in the Birth Partners volunteer doula program at UNC Medical Center. While some scholars may come to the program with previous doula training, many complete the School of Nursing’s service-learning elective, Supporting the Childbearing Family. During this class, students complete professional birth doula training and begin service as doulas. Birth doulas provide emotional, physical, and informational support to laboring parents and their partners, before, during and shortly after the birth experience.

Katherine first discovered her passion for reproductive health nursing while a student at Carolina. Her path to becoming a Tar Heel was rooted in family tradition — Katherine’s mother, maternal uncle, and two maternal aunts are all graduates of the university, including her aunt Donna Laney, who graduated from the School of Nursing in 1980.

In fact, when Katherine began considering a career in nursing, she consulted her Aunt Donna who remembers her niece as a brilliant and caring young woman who was a quiet and strong leader and a fierce and loyal friend. Laney recalls a phone call in spring 2021. “Katherine had just given her first shot to a baby who she had watched being born,” says Laney. “Giving a baby their first vaccination is a big deal and she was excited and proud of herself that she had done it. She was so happy to share that with me.”

Katherine’s own words reflect the joy she found in her work. In a reflection she penned during her maternity and reproductive health clinical experience in the 2021 spring semester, she wrote, “The most important thing I learned during my clinical experience today is that I genuinely think that a nursing career dealing with babies is my calling. I was completely mesmerized looking at my patient’s newborn baby, holding him, assessing him, and interacting with him…” It was her experience caring for new families that inspired Katherine to become a doula and join Birth Partners.

All who knew Katherine sing her praises. At Katherine’s memorial service, Katherine’s mentor and professor, Rhonda K. Lanning, DNP CNM LCCE IBCLC RN, shared some of her conversations with Katherine’s fellow nursing students and friends. “I was struck by how I heard again and again how Katherine brought light and joy to any space she inhabited,” says Lanning, who is a clinical associate professor at the School of Nursing and the program director for Birth Partners. 

“She was warm and gracious and radiant and challenged others to see good in the world even when that was hard,” says Lanning. Katherine used her positivity and enthusiasm to serve as a comforting presence as a volunteer doula at UNC Medical Center where was attentive to patients and their family members and a strong advocate for them.

“Many will decide that they want to pursue a career in reproductive health or family nursing and some will become midwives or advanced practice nurses. It is exciting to imagine the many opportunities for how this program can impact the future of nursing.”

Rhonda Lanning, Professor

“Katherine’s loss is huge to her family and her friends,” says Louise Fleming, PhD, MSN-Ed, RN, associate dean for undergraduate programs and division at the School of Nursing. “It’s also huge to me personally and to the School of Nursing and the nursing profession because she was the type of nurse we want our students to become. She had the compassion, the desire to work with vulnerable populations, the work ethic, and the energy.”

Lanning agrees. “Katherine was a shining star,” she says. “She was a leader who was very humble. She was obviously very bright and, even though she came across as quiet, she was also a great communicator. She was the future of nursing.”

And while that future will be missing Katherine’s physical presence, her impact will be felt. The Carolina Nursing Katherine Nell Acierno Women’s Health/Doula Scholars Program will give student doulas the opportunity to focus on human interaction, connections to patients, education, advocacy, and supportive touch that are so fundamental to nursing care. They will also be able to develop their self-confidence and communication skills. “In working with students over the years and reading their reflections, I know that the doula students are transformed by these hands-on experiences and are better nurses because of it,” says Lanning.

The funds from the endowment will allow the approximately 30 to 40 program participants each year to have opportunities to serve the community and further develop their professional skills through continuing education and networking. Scholars will participate in the Birth Partners program through service as doulas and mentors. These Carolina Nursing students will be recognized at their graduation with a special cord signifying their ongoing dedication and service to the program.

Lanning says that the endowment will have a ripple effect. “The support helps not just the people our student doulas work with but has an impact on their future as nurses and the many people they are going to take care of,” she says. “Many will decide that they want to pursue a career in reproductive health or family nursing and some will become midwives or advanced practice nurses. It is exciting to imagine the many opportunities for how this program can impact the future of nursing.”

Fleming and Lanning express their deep gratitude to Katherine’s family for making this program possible. They say that the impact this program will have will ensure that Katherine’s name lives on. “Students will get to know Katherine through this experience,” says Lanning.  

During the May 2022 School of Nursing graduation ceremony, Katherine’s name was said as each of the students who participated in the doula scholars program walked the dais. “To hear Katherine’s name called 23 times was moving,” says Laney. “Katherine Nell Acierno’s name will be around long after we are all gone. People who have already made their mark in this world are sometimes taken away too soon. But Katherine’s legacy will live on through the doula scholars program at the School of Nursing.”