There are two things Heather King, president and chief operating officer of Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center since August 2022, wants us all to ask ourselves at the end of each day. The first is, what did you do to show kindness? The second is, whom or what did you impact?

Heather King

For King, 47, these questions are at the heart of everything she does. They guided her during a 17-year-climb from certified nursing assistant (CNA) – providing bedside care to patients – all the way to hospital president in one of the fastest-growing counties in North Carolina.

But don’t mistake her kindness for weakness. King has worked hard to achieve her spot at the table. With the help of a few significant mentors along the way who recognized and nurtured her leadership abilities, today she is one of a select minority – only about 31 percent of U.S. hospitals are led by a woman.

Humble beginnings

King is rooted in what she calls “humble beginnings,” living on her grandparents’ farm in Davidson County, North Carolina. Her mom had attended nursing school, but gave up working a nurse’s 12-hour-shift to instead work jobs that would allow her more time to raise King and her twin brother. When King was 9, her mom was severely injured in a car accident and spent three months in a hospital. Her mom returned home with pins in her arms and her jaw wired shut, and King took on the role as her caregiver.

“She instilled in me that caregiver role and that nurturing quality,” King said. “I think it’s been ingrained in me from a young age. Through her strength, I learned really early that sometimes you just put your head down and get things done.”

Going to college after she graduated from high school, King says, was not an option. At age 27, when she delivered her first child, her daughter, at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, she was surrounded by labor and delivery nurses who impressed her with their focus, hard work and empathy. Two years later, she had the same experience with her second child, her son.

“I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” King said.


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Finding her passion

With her mom as her biggest cheerleader, King began an associate degree nursing program at Forsyth Technical Community College when her son was just six weeks old. She received her CNA license, then in 2006, accepted a job in the labor and delivery unit at Forsyth Medical Center, the very place where she had delivered her children.

As a CNA, King felt like she had discovered her true passion, completing the physically demanding job of responding to patients’ call signs and assisting them with their daily nutrition, medication and hygiene needs. She wanted to keep growing and enrolled in an upward mobility nursing program called the Student Nurse Apprenticeship Program (SNAP), earning her Bachelor of Science in nursing from Winston-Salem State University and becoming a RN. She transferred to the critical care unit, which she now considers to be her niche for two reasons: It allows her to create a connection with the patients who can be healed, and support the families of the patients who can’t.

“For me, being there for the families is a big part of it,” she said. “There are going to be some patients when there is not a cure or a fix. But you can make sure you give them dignity and that you lend your heart to the family. That was really important to me.”

Embracing leadership

As King excelled at Forsyth Medical Center, leaders took notice. A nurse manager called King into her office.

“I thought, ‘I’ve never been in the office before, am I in trouble?’” King said.

King was not in trouble. There was a nurse leadership position open at the hospital and the nurse manager asked, “Why haven’t you applied for this?” King insisted that she was not a leader. Finally, her manager convinced her by saying something that still sticks with King today: "You’re either part of the problem, or you’re part of the solution. If you feel like you’re part of the solution, you owe it to yourself and others to at least throw your hat in.”

The nurse manager saw the spark in King, her determination and compassion for others, as would other leaders. Later as a nurse at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, King documented process improvements and submitted them to her chief nursing officer. Six weeks later, the president and chief nursing officer encouraged her to apply for a director of nursing position.

“Throughout my career, I’ve been very blessed that there have been people who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” King said.

Despite the encouragement of many, King would sometimes ask herself, “Are they sure they want me in this seat?” The late Cindy Jarrett-Pulliam, former chief nursing officer at Forsyth Medical Center, was a shining example of how to embrace leadership in the health care industry.

“When she walked in the room, she commanded respect,” King said. “She’s the one who taught me that I had earned my seat at the table, and I needed to step up and claim it.” Jarrett-Pulliam also advocated for higher nursing education and encouraged King to earn her Master of Nursing degree, which she completed in 2016, while working as the chief nursing officer at Novant Health Clemmons Medical Center.

King built a nursing team from the start at Clemmons Medical Center, with the day they broke ground for the hospital in 2014 as her first day on the job. She focused on creating an environment that is team-centered, and in turn, patient-focused. Creating relationships, which she says is the foundation of leadership, was her central aim.

Owning her power

At Clemmons Medical Center, King also built a relationship with Dr. John Mann, the hospital’s president and chief operating officer and senior vice president of Novant Health Institutes. She now calls his mentorship life-changing.

“He taught me how to remain humble while still owning my knowledge and power,” King said. “I’m so thankful for him. He’s a great mentor and great teacher. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be in the role I’m in now if it weren’t for him.”

But Mann is quick to say that King put herself in the position she’s in today, and that it’s the result of her own potential.

“I’m proud of her,” Mann said. “She may give me credit for something, but she did all the work.”

Mann, who began his career as a nurse aide, says he initially connected with King when he was a practicing surgeon and she was a bedside nurse, years before. When he came to Clemmons Medical Center in 2019, they reconnected through a mutual respect for each other’s clinical abilities. He quickly began to see a new side of her professional strengths.

“It was clear that she had already earned the respect and admiration of her team,” Mann said. “I didn’t want to come in and diminish her prominence.” Instead, Mann shared responsibilities with her.

“She never said no to anything,” Mann said.

Embracing change

When Mann learned the president role was available at Brunswick Medical Center in 2022, he encouraged King to seize the opportunity. After seven years at Clemmons, King embraced change and moved four hours southeast. She calls the move the hardest thing she’s ever had to do; the team at Clemmons Medical Center was like family. But she saw the opportunity to create an impact.

Today, King is adjusting to her new home and creating goals to increase her community involvement in Brunswick County. One of these goals is to be present for kids who think college is not obtainable – kids like her – and to support young women in achieving leadership roles.

“That’s a reason I have stayed at Novant Health,” King said. “They really do empower female leaders.”

A lot of people have fought for her throughout her career, King says, creating a support bolster and encouraging her to be herself.

“My life took so many paths that I never thought it would,” King said. “I’m incredibly grateful, though, because I couldn’t have dreamed I would be here.”