Staff profile: Kathy Underwood, leader in Student Wellness progress

Throughout its history, UNLV has been positively impacted by women who had vision, determination, and the skills to re-shape UNLV into what it is today. Kathy Underwood, executive director of the Student Health Center (SHC) and the Faculty and Staff Treatment Center (FAST), is another example of a pioneering force whose work improves the experience for faculty, staff, and students.

When Underwood, a family nurse practitioner, arrived at UNLV nearly 22 years ago, the Student Health Center was a far different place. During her tenure – first as a staff nurse practitioner, later as associate director, director, and now currently as the executive director — the facility has experienced exponential growth, gained national board certification, and expanded to offer care to faculty and staff.

Celebrating the accomplishments of women during Women’s History Month, Underwood shared insight into her time at UNLV and her professional motivations.

What made you want to get involved in healthcare? 

I have wanted to be a nurse since childhood. I have always had a heart for those who are in need, sick, hurting, in pain, suffering, and those who may not have a voice of their own, such as children and elderly.

Did you have a role model or someone who inspired you? 

My mom and dad are the most selfless and giving and generous and thoughtful people I know, and they are my role models. Neither of them had the opportunity to go to college, and they worked extremely hard and sacrificed so much so that my brother and I could attend and graduate from college. I have never taken for granted what I have because of their love and sacrifices, and I have always wanted to be like both of them; selfless in the way that they have lived their entire lives for their family and for others in need.

What motivates you to continue in this role?  

My team and the patients we serve are who motivate me. The pandemic definitely stretched us to our limits in a way nothing else ever has. It was exhausting, grueling and draining over the past 2+ years, and there were times we weren’t sure we could continue at that pace. My staff continue to give absolutely everything they have and everything they are each and every day without ever a complaint. They are all so talented and compassionate and they give the best care to our patients. 

You played a significant role in UNLV’s distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine and the recent opening of a pharmaceutical trial program at UNLV. Tell us a little more about those advancements.

I was extremely honored to be a part of the planning and implementation of the COVID vaccine point of distribution (or POD) at UNLV.  My staff and I worked on a daily basis at the POD for six full months last year, Monday to Friday, often working 10 hour days, administering COVID vaccines, as soon as the vaccines received emergency use authorization, to the UNLV community, as well as to many essential workers in the Las Vegas area. … I am proud to say that we administered 130,000 doses without any serious adverse outcomes. The Student Health Center also provided emergency drugs and equipment to the POD and handled all of the hazardous waste, such as the used syringes and needles to be sure that they were safely disposed of, all the while keeping all normal operations running in the SHC and FAST Center.  The POD was a huge collaborative effort with UNLV Emergency Management, the School of Medicine and School of Nursing, and other Schools of Nursing from Nevada and Arizona, as well as many volunteers from UNLV and our community. We pulled everything together in a few short weeks to bring the POD to life, and it was incredibly gratifying to work with so many wonderful people to help make a huge impact in reducing serious illness, hospitalizations and death in our community. 

Another highlight of my UNLV career is definitely working my amazing pharmacy team, the Division of Research and the UNLV Office of Clinical Trials to begin our new Investigational Drug Service (IDS) through our pharmacy at UNLV.  Over the past year, the Student Wellness pharmacy has worked tirelessly to write policies and procedures and work closely with the Nevada Board of Pharmacy to receive approval to bring IDS to UNLV, one of the few IDS in the country in an outpatient pharmacy setting, so that we can support researchers at UNLV conduct critically important drug trials.  The hope is that some of these drug trials will lead to new drugs being approved by the FDA for patients with serious health conditions, many of whom have run out of other treatment options.  It is incredibly exciting, and we are thrilled to be a part of these research efforts to help improve lives!

Can you share a few other major accomplishments you’ve been a part of while at UNLV?  

One of the things I am especially proud of is leading the effort, with my team, to accomplish and maintain national accreditation for the Student Health Center.  When I first came to UNLV, the Health Center was not accredited.  I knew we were doing great work and taking excellent care of our patients, but I believed accreditation was an important step to help enhance what we were doing and also help our patients and the campus recognize that we were a clinically excellent center and a place in which they could put their trust.  It took about 10 years of preparation, and the first accreditation was granted in 2011 by the Accreditation Association of Ambulatory Health Care (AAAHC). Since then, the SHC and all departments, such as the laboratory, pharmacy, medical records as well as business operations, in addition to the Faculty and Staff Treatment (FAST) Center, have adhered to 300+ national standards of care and maintained our national accreditation. The SHC and FAST Center have successfully passed three subsequent re-accreditation on-site surveys by an accreditation team, with the last survey occurring during the height of the COVID pandemic in late 2020, and we passed with no deficiencies. 

Another accomplishment is planning and opening the FAST Center on campus so that we could begin offering our high- quality health care not only to UNLV students, but also to faculty, staff and their dependents.  My hope is that the UNLV community will find the SHC and FAST Center special places where they are listened to, supported, provided excellent and confidential health care and guidance, and that my team and I can support them in accomplishing health and wellness, and with that, all of their academic and professional goals at UNLV. 

When you think about women who have made significant impacts on UNLV, do you have any role models or individuals that particularly inspire you?  

One of my former supervisors and the former director of the SHC, Tina Saddler, was, and continues to be, an inspiration to me.  Tina is a nurse practitioner and a leader who is one of the fairest, just, genuine, and driven women I know. I still think about Tina, even now, and reflect on how she handled the toughest of situations with objectivity, professionalism and fairness.  I hope to always do the same and to lead with fairness, kindness, and compassion. I am also inspired by the students we serve and care for. So many of them are women who have experienced and overcome incredible challenges and adversity in their lives, and they are living and working with dedication, passion and determination to make world a better place.  They have inspiring dreams and they are working hard and sacrificing much to accomplish them, in order to benefit not just themselves and their families but the entire world.      

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