Born and raised in Warwick, Rhode Island, U.S. Navy Nurse Lieutenant Ashley Flynn, RN has chartered a nursing career anything but ordinary. As the first in her family to graduate from college and the first to join the Navy, Flynn had led an impressive career taking her places around the world while climbing the ladder to leadership positions. Learn about Flynn’s path to nursing leadership, the challenges she faced, and the rewarding experiences that have impacted her life and ultimately enabled her to capitalize on her curiosity and be a part of something bigger than herself.
What made you interested in becoming a nurse and what was it like starting out with a nursing degree?
I always knew I liked all the sciences, and biology was interesting to me so I actually started out to become a physician. I had what seems to be a common experience for college freshmen, and I questioned if this was the right path for me. I really saw myself in medicine but I wanted a career I could start sooner, and with more flexibility. I had several people suggest nursing so I figured I would give it a try. I liked that I could potentially move around in specialties, and also bridge nursing with another industry such as policy, law or education. I was the first person in my family to go to college so I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. It was very challenging! I was experiencing “senioritis” well before my senior year of nursing school--not because I didn’t enjoy the material but it was all brand new information and I was probably fatigued trying to drink from the nursing school fire hose. In hindsight, I am in awe of my ability to keep pushing through and grateful for my nursing school for challenging me. It definitely set me up for success when I was functioning independently and putting my license to use.
Tell me about the timeline of your nursing career serving in the Navy.
After completing my initial training to commission in the Navy, I was stationed at National Naval Medical Center Bethesda (now renamed Walter Reed). I completed a nurse intern program consisting of 16 weeks shadowing nurses in all the inpatient units, and cross-training with phlebotomists, pharmacists, and other multidisciplinary professionals. My first assignment was on an inpatient cardiology ward where I was trained as a charge nurse early on. After about a year, I moved over to the inpatient surgical ward, which was primarily responsible for taking care of wounded service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. After another year there, I was transferred around the other side of DC to Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, where I worked on the inpatient medicine ward. I moved into the ICU after a year, and was deployed to a base in Djibouti, Africa for 8 months. When I returned, I started a 4-month training pipeline to become a Flight Nurse, and served one year in Diego Garcia (a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean). After my tour there, I was stationed at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, where I am now one of the charge nurses in the ICU. I just got home from a 6-month deployment on the USNS MERCY (T-AH 19), a hospital ship completing a partnership mission in the Indo-Pacific region.
You recently completed your online master’s degree from George Washington University in 2017 while stationed in Diego Garcia. What led you to pursue your master’s degree and how were you able to balance work and school?
I pursued a Master’s because I knew that I would ultimately be put into a leadership position, and I wanted the credentials to go with it. I wanted to know how healthcare worked on a larger scale, to be able to speak the language and to be prepared. I found early on that effective (as well as ineffective) nursing leaders really have an impact on those who do work at the bedside, so I started to mirror my career path after the ones who were an inspiration to me. I mistakenly thought I would have spare time while out in Diego Garcia, so balancing school and work out there was hard. We also had satellite internet, which is similar to what dial-up speed used to be. It took 20-30 minutes to download one PDF article, so researching and writing papers was interesting. Will Ferrell has a quote that says, “Before you marry a person, you should first make them use a computer with slow internet to see who they really are” and I have to agree with that. Bonus points for completing a Master’s on said computer.
What did you find most rewarding about working as an Intensive Care Unit nurse in the Navy?
At this point in my career, it is most rewarding to mentor the nurses more junior to me, and encourage them to live out their most exciting adventures. I was fortunate to have a unique path, and Critical Care in the Navy opens almost every door for these opportunities. I spend a lot of my time now training novice nurses who are joining the ICU team, and it’s exciting to watch them move to independent practice, and then feel comfortable to seek out assignments where they can shine.
Explain some of the challenges you faced while serving on the USNS Mercy ship as the Division Officer of the ICU and unit manager of nurses?
While being away from home is not always ideal, I would say that one of the biggest challenges was achieving effective communication within the nursing department. There is no way to communicate with everyone individually on a ship—there are no cell phones in the middle of the ocean, or even when we pulled into port. There are also a lot of people in a small, confined space so imagine the game of telephone on overdrive. My most important tool for this problem was actually a dry erase board. I kept this updated around the clock, so my staff knew to check the board for any important information. I spent many hours trying to get to the source of the information so I could pass on whatever was accurate.
How has your Navy experience impacted your life and benefitted your nursing career?
There is not enough space to fully explain how the Navy has impacted my life and paid out dividends on my career tenfold. I am truly grateful for this experience, and have really juiced everything I could out of it. I have attended all kinds of trainings and conferences, achieved certifications, developed under pressure, traveled literally around the world, and made lifelong friends who became lifelong family. Serving is something that is appreciated by many but understood by few, and I will always treasure the experiences I have had and the people I shared them with. You always know that someone, somewhere has your back and that is invaluable.
You are heavily involved with the Travis Manion Foundation. Can you share why you have such a strong connection to this foundation?
I have been volunteering with the Travis Manion Foundation (TMF) for a little more than 2 years, but I have been following the organization since I was stationed at Fort Belvoir in 2011. I was a spectator at the Marine Corps Marathon that year, and came across a booth for “Team Travis and Brendan”. These runners were organized in honor of Travis Manion and his Naval Academy roommate Brendan Looney who were both Killed in Action. I was inspired by their sacrifice, and the brotherhood they shared. Through veterans and families of the fallen, the organization aims to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice by strengthening the character of the community. Most of my time with TMF is spent building leaders among high school students on the USS Midway Museum. We complete teambuilding events and focus on the positive attributes they can use to bring good back to their respective communities.
What has been a pivotal, defining moment in your career so far?
A moment in my career that sticks out to me is when I was assigned to the inpatient surgical unit to take care of wounded service members. I was enjoying my time in the Navy, but I had my own professional goals too. I really wanted to move up to the ICU, and it was well known that those who worked on “5 East” were working harder than anyone else in the hospital. It was not my choice to be assigned there, and I took the news hard. I was so focused on myself, my goals, and trying to balance my schedule with sleep, exercise, eating right, etc. It didn’t take long to realize that my self-centered thoughts were foolish in the face of war. I was taking care of guys my age who just had their world turned upside down, and some had to relearn things like walking, eating, or speaking. These injuries affected their entire family. Parents, spouses and children were also trying to wrap their heads around how things had changed. It made me step back and realize my reason for joining the Navy in the first place: I wanted to be part of something bigger. In order to be part of something bigger, I had to put my personal agenda aside. I eventually achieved my goals, but my various takeaways from the Navy and my time on 5 East are far more meaningful than whatever I envisioned for myself.
What’s next for you?
I would eventually like to get my Doctorate of Nursing Practice in Anesthesia, but it has been a busy couple years finishing my Master’s and going out on deployments. For now, I am looking forward to enjoying a bit of work-life balance and settling out until my next adventure.