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Audrienne H. Moseley Endowed Chair in Community Research, UCLA Nursing Heading link

Holli DeVon

When Holli DeVon, PhD ’02, MS ’82, RN, FAHA, FAAN, started looking at differences in heart disease symptom presentation between men and women 25 years ago, there was very little research on the topic. Most studies on the subject focused on men, widely believed to be more afflicted by heart disease.

“When I started on my dissertation, I did a systematic review, and there were 12 papers worldwide at the time that were looking at sex differences and symptoms for what we now call acute coronary syndrome—heart attack and angina,” DeVon says. “Now, I would say there’s probably hundreds and hundreds of papers, but it was early in the field.”

DeVon’s work on the topic over the last two decades has led to improvements in early recognition of cardiovascular disease in women. She’s helped identify sweating as and unusual fatigue as key symptoms in women and has found that women are at higher risk for delays in treatment when experiencing a heart attack.

“Dr. DeVon has been a leader in the symptom science of cardiovascular disease with a specific focus on women, a population often overlooked in regard to cardiovascular symptoms and underrepresented in research for this area,” wrote UIC Nursing associate professor Mary Dawn Koenig, PhD, RN, CNM, in her nomination letter.

DeVon, who is the associate dean for research and the Audrienne H. Moseley Endowed Chair in Community Research at UCLA Nursing, was selected as a 2023 UIC College of Nursing Outstanding Alumni Achievement winner.

DeVon worked in an ICU for three years before deciding to pursue a master’s degree at UIC Nursing with encouragement from faculty at her undergraduate nursing program at Loyola University Chicago. DeVon says one of those faculty was Christine Schwartz, BSN ’70, calling her a “phenomenal influence.”

“At the time, she was a clinical instructor at Loyola and she worked in the emergency department at Weiss [Memorial Hospital],” DeVon says. “She was just a wonderful instructor, a great teacher.”

DeVon entered her master’s degree program to prepare for a career as a cardiovascular clinical specialist, but the science-focused degree sparked an interest in research. Her thesis advisor, Marjorie Powers, pushed her to publish her original research on patients with uncontrolled high blood pressure and present it to the American Heart Association.

“I learned so much from [Marjorie Powers],” DeVon says. “Not just about being a good researcher but being a great mentor.”

DeVon didn’t immediately pursue a research career, despite Powers’ persistent encouragement. (“I’m not kidding when I say for 15 years straight, every single year, Marjorie would ask, ‘Have you applied to the PhD program yet?’”)

When she finally did enroll in 1997, her dissertation chair was Julie Zerwic, PhD, RN, FAHA, FAAN, now UIC Nursing professor emerita and dean of the University of Iowa College of Nursing. DeVon’s research inquiries were sparked by her practice in the ICU, predominantly coronary care, where she questioned best practices for women.

DeVon’s research led to a better understanding of symptom differences between men and women, called out disparities across race, particularly for African Americans, and explored why patients’ outcomes differ after being discharged from the hospital.

She has received both the Research and Clinical Article of the Year Award from Wiley-Blackwell/American Heart Association, was awarded a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award to Rwanda in 2018 to study cardiovascular disease in patients with HIV, and was inducted into the Sigma Theta Tau Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame in 2020.

“We’ve made great strides,” DeVon says. “When I started my dissertation, there were about 1.4 million Americans per year having heart attacks or repeat heart attacks. Now it’s down to 650,000 – more than cut in half in 25 years. That is a tribute to advances in medicine and advances in science, better treatments, more awareness—especially about women and their risk—and better advocacy. It’s good news.”

DeVon, who was a UIC Nursing professor from 2012 to 2019 and head of the Biobehavioral Health Science department for two of those years, says she is “most proud” of the successes of her students. She has guided 30 students through their dissertations and advised and mentored many others.

“It’s been a great career,” DeVon says. “I feel very fortunate to have chosen nursing. When I was a new nurse, I never knew the opportunities that would become available to me in my career.”