Teaching ‘the Finest of Fine Arts’
Dr. Toi Durham Trains Nurses in Compassion & Community
By Laura Wagner
Toi Durham never intended to follow in the rubber-soled footsteps of her nurse mother.
Then her son was born.
Leaving the hospital with her newborn in her arms, Durham was stopped by a labor-and-delivery (L&D) nurse who noticed a potentially life-threatening health issue. Doctors told Durham her son would never lead a normal life.
Devastated, Durham turned to her mother, a career nurse and nurse educator, and asked advice on how to manage both her son’s care and her career. Her mother’s response: “Take him home. Spend the next year loving and nurturing him, then go back to work.”
That was the moment, Durham remembers, when she decided to become a nurse. “The combination of that L&D nurse’s clinical skill, which enabled her to identify my son’s problem through a very subtle physical cue, and my mom’s compassionate response to this incredibly difficult situation—those two things changed the course of my life,” Durham said. She’s now been on that course for nearly 30 years.
From LVN to DNP
Durham’s path to become a nurse was fairly typical: LVN to RN to BSN, working as a practitioner all the while. But after 20 years of clinical nursing, she felt she had more to give.
“I knew what nurses faced day in and day out,” she recalled. “I lived it. And I wanted to help somehow.” She started teaching at local colleges and earned her Master of Science in Nursing degree. “That’s when I developed a true passion for teaching. It made me want to get my DNP [Doctor of Nursing Practice],” she said. “I wanted to be as effective as possible at training the next generation of nurses.”
Vision for UHD
Born, raised, and educated in Houston, Durham has worked in the area her entire career. That experience makes her uniquely qualified to serve as UHD’s RN to BSN Nursing Program Director, a role she took on in June 2023.
“Nursing is not just hospital-based, it takes place in the community,” she explained. “UHD is very community- and population-focused, and that’s what interests me. It’s very exciting to do that kind of nursing service.”
Durham has a keen interest in mental health—in addition to her DNP, she has a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner designation. She also appreciates the diverse backgrounds and experiences UHD students bring to the table.
“My passion and purpose are to expand the Nursing program and get this community aware of our amazing students, increase our enrollment, and help our students get the placements they deserve,” she said. (Photo: Durham and Ann Russell, MSN, Division Vice President of Academic Partnerships for HCA). She’s also working with a State Board of Texas initiative to increase Nursing faculty salaries to make teaching more attractive. “Keeping qualified faculty is a challenge,” she noted.
Compassion is the shared currency of nurses and nurse educators, Durham believes. “I tell my stories to my students so they can see that to be a successful nurse, compassion is paramount,” she said.
In addition to the story of her son (who, thanks to the early intervention, overcame his health challenge and became a teacher), Durham shares with students an experience from her early nursing days, when she had to assist a doctor who was performing a procedure on a very young woman. The doctor elected not to use anesthesia. The young woman screamed from pain while Durham did all that she could: held her hand with compassion. Years later, the young woman’s mother reached out and thanked her for just that: holding her daughter’s hand during the harrowing experience.
For Durham, that event illustrates the importance of compassion as well as the fundamental concept that patients have rights, something she teaches her students. “Nursing instructors impact students forever—not just in teaching the subject matter, but in demonstrating compassion and sharing the lessons we’ve learned in our career,” she said. “It’s so meaningful to give back to my students. I love to see their eyes light up when they realize, ‘I can do that! I can be a successful practitioner!’”
Durham credits her move to nurse educator in part to her own professors. “I try to pay forward all that my professors and my mom did for me and their students,” she said. “What I learned and what I try to convey through teaching is that we’re more than nurses. We’re humans. We have the ability to be part of the solution.”
Her wish for the next generation of nurses she’s helping to train? “I hope what they take away from our program is that being a nurse is challenging but rewarding at the human level. That’s what will carry the profession forward.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.