RWJF Executive Nurse Fellow is Part of Olympic History
“We’re just regular everyday people,” says Debra Toney, PhD, MS, BSN, FAAN, an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Executive Nurse Fellows program (2006-2009). “I’m a mother and grandmother. I go to work every day and come home and take care of my family.”
But on July 9—and in the weeks leading up to it—she was anything but a regular person. Toney, director of nursing for Nevada Health Centers and immediate past president of the National Black Nurses Association, was chosen by the Coca-Cola Company to carry the Olympic torch in Kirtlington, England. She is one of 22 selected by Coca-Cola for the honor, and one of the 8,000 torchbearers who helped the flame make its way across England to London for the opening ceremony on July 27.
Toney was nominated by friends and colleagues for her work and service to the community promoting a positive and healthy lifestyle, from running health fairs and health education programs to championing health policy changes. Toney has also been involved in an anti-obesity initiative with the National Black Nurses Association—a cause also championed by Coca-Cola.
In the weeks before she left for England, her unique honor received considerable media attention. One television station even came to her house just hours before she left for the airport, she says. And the excitement didn’t stop there. When the torchbearers were wearing their uniforms around Kirtlington, people would stop them to take pictures and ask questions. “Everybody wants to touch the torch and take a picture. People with children would hold them up and place their hands on the torch. They were all in awe of those of us participating,” she recalls.
When it was time for the relay, thousands of people lined the streets, waving flags and cheering on the participants. Toney carried the torch 300 meters—roughly the length of three football fields—before handing it off to the next torchbearer. “I told them I was just going to strut it, but when the adrenaline kicked in, I ended up running the entire way,” she says.
Toney and her husband spent the remainder of the week in England, sightseeing and taking in the culture. They also visited the Royal College of Nursing in London, where Toney met with the director. “We tried to immerse ourselves in everything,” she says, “from the food, to the history, to the health care system. You hear about other places around the world, but to have the opportunity to experience it was amazing. We’re really all alike. We may live thousands of miles away from each other, but we have a lot in common, like the desire to be healthy and have a good quality of life.”
This kind of honor “lets you know you’re doing the right thing,” Toney says. “It lets you know that somebody’s always watching. It gives you the strength and motivation to continue to give back to something that’s bigger than yourself and help others.”
“It could’ve been anybody that carried that torch,” Toney asserts. “We’re talking about people who don’t have anything special, just people with the drive and passion to give back to someone besides themselves.”