A graduate of The University of New Mexico-Gallup Nursing Program earned a DAISY Award from her employer and was also nominated for a nursing excellence award for going out of her way to help a patient in need.

Raelynn Benally, a registered nurse who works as an occupational nurse at Gallup Indian Medical Center, was nominated for the “Touch a Life” award in the 2023 New Mexico Nursing Excellence Awards in April. Although she did not win, Benally said it still felt great to be acknowledged because of everything she went through during her time as an emergency room nurse.

“It feels great to be recognized for the care I’ve provided,” she said. “It’s a huge accomplishment, especially knowing I was the one who made a difference in this patient’s life and they’re thanking me for making such a significant impact.”

Raelynn Benally DAISY
Raelynn Benally earned a DAISY Award and a nomination for a New Mexico Nursing Excellence Award.

The “Touch a Life” award celebrates the special bond between patient and nurse, according to the New Mexico Nursing Excellence Awards website. The award was created to give patients, families and communities an opportunity to recognize a nurse who touched their lives in a meaningful way.

A small but significant gesture
Benally recounted the event that spurred her nomination. She said a woman from out of town was experiencing a psychiatric episode while traveling on Interstate 40 and came to the emergency room at GIMC.

The woman was also positive for COVID-19 and could not get accepted into a mental health facility, so she stayed at GIMC for about a week. At the end of the woman’s isolation period, she was ready to be transported to another facility. She had clothing but no shoes, so Benally went to her own truck in the parking lot and retrieved a pair to give to the woman.

“It just so happens that they fit her,” Benally said. “I didn’t think that small gesture would be something this big.”

The woman then nominated Benally for not only the “Touch a Life” award but a DAISY Award as well. The DAISY Award for Extraordinary Nurses is a recognition program started by the Barnes family in Washington state aimed at helping health care facilities to honor nurses who go the extra mile.

“I’ve always been a nurse who went above and beyond to make a patient feel comfortable,” Benally said.

She said she has visited family members in hospital settings before and appreciated the nurses who were there to provide support and sympathy when needed. As a nurse herself, Benally strives to give that level of care.

“I’ve had great role models as nurses,” she said. “Ultimately, increasing the patient comfort and safety and ensuring the patient has a good experience, that’s always been my biggest goal of being a great nurse and also advocating for the patient when they need it — when they can’t advocate for themselves.”

Making sacrifices to be successful
Benally's journey to becoming a nurse started at UNM-Gallup. She graduated from the Gallup branch campus with an Associate of Science in nursing in 2012.

She said she enrolled at UNM-Gallup because it was close to home — she’s originally from Churchrock, N.M. — and because it was affordable compared to other programs. She also had a lot of family support, including a family friend who served as her mentor.

“Having that strong family support is what kept me here,” she said. “And, honestly, the majority of nurses who worked when I had clinical rotations did complete the program here and had positive things to say about it.”

Benally found the college experience to be tough because her daughter was an infant at the time, but she was able to utilize the former daycare center on campus for support. The daycare center is no longer in operation, but UNM-Gallup officials are working to revive it.

“In order to be successful, it did take a lot of sacrifice,” Benally said, recalling the many sleepless nights she spent studying. “The nice thing was a majority of the staff were approachable. … They were able to offer a lot of positive feedback and encouragement as far as being successful with that program.”

Raelynn Benally Nursing Excellence
Raelynn Benally attends the New Mexico Nursing Excellence Awards ceremony at Sandia Resort and Casino recently.

Benally said she was inspired to become a nurse after participating in a career exploration program when she was in high school.

Originally, Benally wanted to become a pediatrician, but she had the opportunity to work with the Labor and Delivery Unit at GIMC and discovered her love for nursing.

“The nurses were more hands-on with patients as far as tending to the mother’s needs or the newborn’s needs,” she said. “The doctor delivers the baby and leaves, but the nurse stays there and takes care of the patient. At that point in time, I wanted to go into nursing to make that difference for the patient and take care of the patient.”

After graduating from UNM-Gallup, Benally moved to Albuquerque and got her first nursing job at Presbyterian Hospital. At the same time, she attended UNM to pursue her bachelor’s in nursing.

After graduating with her bachelor’s, Benally moved back to Gallup at the end of 2016. She then took classes online through Arizona State University and earned a master’s in nursing education in Spring 2021.

‘I’ll go and do more’
Currently, Benally is pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice with a concentration in family nurse practitioner through the University of Arizona. Most of her classes are online, but clinicals start in January 2024 and she’s hoping to complete them at her current employer, GIMC.

Benally expects to graduate in December 2024. Then she plans to take the board exam so she can work as a nurse practitioner.

“I would love to stay here (in the Gallup area) because I feel like our Indigenous community does need high quality providers, so I would love to work in a community of need, whether it’s Gallup or another reservation,” she said. “I think it’s important for our people, especially younger people, to see providers who look like them.”

Benally is Navajo. She is of the Bitter Water Clan, born for the Red Running into the Water (Zuni) Clan. Her maternal grandfather was of the Coyote Pass (Jemez) Clan and her paternal grandfather was of the Salt Water People Clan.

Growing up, she didn’t see many Navajo doctors or providers, so that’s part of the reason why she wanted to work in health care.

Another inspiration for her was a mural painted inside of Ellis Tanner Trading Company, which features people who have accomplished great things for the Navajo Nation. When Benally looked up at the murals, the person who caught her eye was Annie Dodge Wauneka, a tribal leader of the Navajo Nation and a public health activist.

Wauneka was known for saying, “I’ll go and do more,” after she earned awards or accolades, meaning she did not believe her work was done. “I’ll Go and Do More” became the title of a biography about Wauneka authored by Carolyn Niethammer.

“For me, that means that I’m going to keep going to school,” Benally said. “I’m going to keep doing what I can to learn as much as I can so I can be an effective provider and leader for my people.”

She also hopes to someday become an educator to teach the next generation of nurses.

“I want to motivate nurses to go further,” she said. “There are lots of obstacles that our community faces. It’s hard for students to be successful. … If someone is there to motivate them, to push them to keep going — I want to be that kind of educator, to be able to show students that being successful in Gallup is possible.”

To learn more, visit the UNM-Gallup nursing program.

Featured image: Raelynn Benally, who earned a DAISY Award and a nomination for a New Mexico Nursing Excellence Award, at the UNM-Gallup campus.