A Conversation with Mayor Linda Gorton, Alum of the UK College of Nursing

Posted: September 9, 2019

Recently, Mayor Linda Gorton visited the College of Nursing, where she met a handful of students and toured the once familiar hallways. Dean Janie Heath then had the opportunity to sit down with Mayor Gorton to discuss how her nursing background has influenced her public service career.

Can you share with us the story of how your nursing journey began?

I started thinking about nursing in junior high. My mother worked for a physician, but she wasn’t a registered nurse—she did administrative work. Since I was around that a lot, especially after school, I started to think about health care. Then, in high school, it became more and more of a desire. I was probably a junior in high school when I knew nursing was what I wanted to do.

Was UK your first choice?

I grew up about a half hour from Ohio State University. They had a wonderful College of Nursing, but it was a little too close to home. We knew Kentucky had a very good nursing program that was fairly young but strong, and for us, it was about four hours down the road—the perfect distance.

I graduated in 1971. Back then, we came right into nursing, so I began in 1967. It was a completely different facility with long and narrow halls. As you went up the stairs, there was a narrow hallway and offices on each side. Right next door was a little Waffle House, where the nursing students went, and some additional parking. Of course, there was the old UK hospital with the fountain and the boomerang statue. The nursing students and med students always walked back and forth to the pancake place, and there was [also] a restaurant across the street on Limestone, where we’d all meet on Fridays.

Remind me about when you worked as a registered nurse.

My last 17 years of nursing, I worked for a physician whose practice was internal medicine. He was a primary care physician, and I always swore I would never work in a physician’s office because I had worked in hospitals and outpatient clinics and loved that kind of work. As it turns out, he utilized RNs to their maximum capabilities. Not only did we teach and educate our patients, we also did all the phlebotomies, EKGs, injections—everything. I was a primary care nurse before we even called it that.

Name a person—living or deceased—with whom you would like to have dinner. Who would that be and why?

I would love to sit down with Elizabeth I, queen of England. Back then, she was a female leader in a male position, and people didn’t like it. She was a woman who was determined that her role in life was to serve as queen and do a good job for her country, so she didn’t have a family. She was an iron fist, and she knew she had to be. I’d also love to have a conversation with Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi. These are women who paved they way; they were one of a kind. There are so many fascinating female leaders in history, and these women in particular really worked hard to make a significant impact in society and the world.

Is there an experience that stands out in nursing that helped you prepare for public service?

As you know, nursing is about leadership. I feel that through nursing and leadership opportunities—whether it was in a hospital or in a clinic setting—wherever I was, in subtle ways, it prepared me.

My husband actually said to me last year, ‘Linda, I think you were working toward being mayor all your life. You just didn’t know it.’ I’ve always enjoyed leadership and working together for the people, and nurses do this all the time.

A professor I had here who influenced me greatly was Evelyn Geller. She’s no longer living, but if you asked any of her students, they’d say they absolutely adored her. She was the one in med-surg who would say, ‘You can do this.’ If you were having trouble with something, she’d encourage us. ‘Now, come on. You’re going to get  through it.’ It takes those kinds of people to help others along.  She was wonderful.

When I was a brand-new nurse in my early 20s and fresh out of the University of Kentucky, we went straight to Germany, where my husband was stationed in the Army. For the first little bit of my career, I worked in intensive care in an Army hospital. Then, I went into pediatrics at the hospital and worked there for about two and a half years. There was a 2-year-old child who was having seizure after seizure. I can still picture it—all the work we did with the little toddler. We ending up losing him, and to this day it’s left a big impression on me. I realized we can’t always save everyone. It’s a hard lesson to learn.

We know your background as a military wife and now military mother. Can  you describe how you  evolved from nursing  to public service?

For me, it seemed like a natural fit. When the council member who was in my district announced she wasn’t going to run, I said to my husband, ‘I think I could do that. I like working with people, and I like solving problems.’ The funny part is, I don’t think he thought  I was serious. A few weeks later, I said to him, ‘I want to do this.’ It just seemed like a normal fit.

We know you’re passionate about the opioid epidemic. Can you give us a background as to why and discuss some ideas you might put forward during your term as mayor?

I think I come to the mayor’s office with a completely different perspective because of my background in health care. I was on the Lexington council when we passed  the first indoor smoking ordinance in Kentucky, in the heart of tobacco country. It created ripples across the country, and it showed me that as a nurse in an elected office, I could make a huge impact on public policy. In my role as mayor, I see that the opioid crisis impacts everyone in the community.

As the mayor, I have a platform to facilitate a strategy forward. We need healthy communities; otherwise, citizens will struggle. UK is a great example. The research that’s happening here is fabulous. Our police officers and firefighters deal with it every day and do a great job to help our citizens, but we need to be working together with multiple disciplines to devise a strategy and tackle this. 

Are there any moments you’ve had as a new mayor that stand out to you? 

The other day, I went to a ribbon cutting. The new  business had a parking sign made for me, ‘Mayor Gorton.’ When we got to the business, the parking lot was full of people, but I could see my parking sign. Since someone  else was driving, I got out of the car and said to the group  of people, ‘Would you mind just moving over a little so  we can get to that parking spot?’

A man replied to me and said, ‘Oh, well that’s for the mayor. I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate it if you  parked in his spot.’ And I said, ‘Guess what?  Lexington’s mayor is a woman, and it’s me.’

Name a movie or book you love just to put your work-life balance in perspective.

I just recently finished reading John Adams, and it’s written by one of my favorite authors of all time, David McCullough. As one of the early leaders of our country, the book starts with John Adams long before he served as president. It talks about what he and Thomas Jefferson went through to create our country and write the Declaration of Independence, and also how John Adams didn’t really want to serve as president. The book went through the periods of friendship between Adams and Jefferson as well as when they despised each other. They disagreed on what to do about France. In the end, after a reconciliation, they died on the exact same day: July 4 of the same year.

What can we—the College of Nursing and nursing profession at large—do to help prepare our students and colleagues for a career in public service?

I think it’s important that students realize they have a voice in public policy. Health care policy, as you know, is huge. Offering leadership opportunities will help students realize the kind of impact they can have on the health of our communities. Policy is much different from providing patient care, so consistent leadership opportunities and discussion over public policy can get students to think about service in a much bigger way.