Denise Rawlings O’Neil ’06 has always been guided by empathy. After completing her bachelor’s degree in nursing at MTSU, the GPS graduate worked for six years in the shock trauma intensive care unit at Erlanger Hospital.
She often encountered trauma patients in the ICU with mental health issues, which caused her to want to more deeply understand people’s stories and overall health. She went back to school to earn her master’s degree as a nurse practitioner, and afterward moved back to Chattanooga, where she now works at Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute and CADAS.
“When I saw patients in the ICU who may have also had a mental health condition, I wanted to know why—I wanted to understand how I could help them recover and manage these conditions,” O’Neil says. “I always have the thought, ‘I can change this,’ and I can help patients get better.”
Now pursuing her doctorate as a nurse practitioner with a certification in psychiatry, O’Neil says her time at GPS made her want to be a better person. She applies that mentality not only in her professional position but in her nonprofit mentoring organization, Building Our Ladies.
Inspired by the ways GPS taught her to give back, O’Neil and her best friend from college, Brandi Scott, sought to reach other women in the community and create a mentoring network. GPS instilled great values in O’Neil, and she was eager to empower other women.
“Our goal was to help another woman build herself up and elevate in all areas of life. Even if we only made a difference in one woman’s life, we accomplished our goal,” O’Neil says. “GPS created the woman I am today. I am thankful for the experiences I had there and honored to give back.”
In its first year, Building Our Ladies supported 10 women. Through monthly events, women discussed how to reach the next level—mentally, physically, emotionally, financially, and spiritually.
While O’Neil put the mentoring group on hold while furthering her education, she still volunteers in the Chattanooga Area of Nurse Practitioners organization, as well as in her community. Her passion to give back stems from her close family, who live in Chattanooga, and the sense of support she had at GPS.
“I treat every patient I come across, whether in the ICU or in admissions at Moccasin Bend, as if they are a family member,” O’Neil says. “I always ask myself, ‘If this were my mom or dad, what would I do?’ I do whatever I would do as if they were my relative.”
O’Neil encourages all young women to follow their passion and to give it 110 percent—something GPS instilled in her.
“My goal is not only to do what makes me happy, but to find my purpose in life and walk in that purpose daily,” O’Neil says. “Women can and should do whatever makes them happy. My advice to other girls and women is to find that purpose and go for it! I promise you will not only have peace but you will be successful in whatever path you take. That’s what GPS taught me.”