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2023 APNA Award for Excellence in Leadership – RN

Leigh Combs

Leigh Lackey, BA, RN, BHCMII

Nominated by Holly Wilkinson

On the journey from case management to psychiatric-mental health nursing, Leigh Lackey formed her philosophy: “It is possible for anyone to instill hope and make a difference regardless of their background or credentials.” Expanding mental health services in a rural area and during a pandemic, Leigh demonstrates excellence in nurse leadership.

A keen interest in learning to understand why people do what they do sparked Leigh to pursue a B.A. degree in Psychology. She then began her career at Green Country Behavioral Health Services (GCBHS) in Oklahoma, attracted to the organization’s mission to make a positive difference in the community in which she was born and raised.

On the very first day serving as a Discharge Case Manager in the GCBHS inpatient adult crisis unit she was intrigued by the impact of psychiatric-mental health treatment.

“I witnessed recovery in action on day one. I encountered a patient who arrived in crisis. The very next day, in greeting the same patient, I saw significant, positive changes in how they presented. Seeing these quick victories was very rewarding.”

Leigh went on to become Assessment Supervisor in a very busy outpatient unit. This role provided new experiences including working with local law enforcement. As she leaned into the learning curve, Leigh took on additional leadership, taking on the role of Chair of the Quality Service Committee, developing best practices to evaluate and make ongoing improvements to the services GCBHS provided.

“My work at GCBHS helped me see that nursing is where the root of my compassion is,” recalls Leigh. She decided to pursue a career in PMH nursing, completing her degree at night while working in the medication clinic during the day.

Her work experience and nursing degree helped Leigh transition to the role of Director of Nursing at GCBHS – a position she has held for the past 9 years. The position requires her to balance managing the business side with leading the clinical practice areas of the organization.

With their rural location, Leigh must prioritize expanding access to essential care resources. When the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she developed creative ways to keep GCBHS open. Services were moved to the parking lot via a newly devised drive thru system, where iPads connected patients with therapists and prescribers. Those without vehicles were also served outdoors in climate-controlled tents.

Leigh explains, “We saw a 300% increase in the need for mental health care. Expanding telehealth options for patients has helped us better meet the increasing need in the community while efficiently managing staff and prescriber time.”

She was able to further leverage telehealth services beyond the demands of COVID-19 to overcome transportation barriers faced by many GCBHS clients. She assisted in developing a grant proposal for a mobile medical unit to provide mental health services throughout the community. As a result, SAMHSA approved a 2-year grant to launch this new initiative.

The GCBHS Care-A-Van regularly visits 13 preset locations where clients can either be seen by appointment or walk up for services. The vehicle is equipped with 2 private spaces with a waiting area in between. Patients meet with a nurse for vitals and intake information and visit with a therapist or prescriber via a telehealth session. The Care-A-Van also travels with tents to provide additional meeting space, if needed.

“It’s about reducing barriers nonstop. We want people to get the care they need. So, we will do all we can to reduce barriers to care,” says Leigh.

Over this past year, the GCBHS clinic has grown exponentially and moved to a newly built building to accommodate an increasing number of patients. Leigh led the hiring and training of new staff and managed the growing pains associated with expansion.

Leigh serves as a mentor for nurses, staff and even the medical director at the clinic, and she also welcomes nursing students from local nursing programs to GCBHS to ensure students experience a high-quality mental health rotation. By providing in-depth exposure to mental health treatment and settings, Leigh has helped develop vital skills among a new generation of nursing professionals, reduced stigma, and inspired interest in PMH nursing careers.

Leigh’s can-do spirit and positive attitude fuels her leadership approach. She states, “It’s really important to me to leave the world a better place than how I found it and inspire hope.” She encourages others to make a difference as she has done, generating unique ideas that benefit her community and directly reduce barriers to care. “At the end of the day, never be afraid to speak up or present your ideas, you never know when they could become a reality and make a difference. Our mobile Care-A-Van is a testament to that.”