Arkansas Children's Nurse Stephanie White admits she "wears people out." But she doesn't have time to worry about that - she is too busy making a difference.  

Throughout the years, her mission has evolved from tending to the health of fellow servicemen in the U.S. Coast Guard, healing pediatric patients, fighting breast cancer through optimism and tap dancing to breathing new life into rural Keo as the town’s mayor, or more aptly, the saving grace of a modern-day Mayberry.  

"I am a status quo disrupter. I'm outgoing and exuberant. I'm all in. I question the way things have always been done and I'm a dreamer, I'm a doer, I'm an optimist. Can it be done better? Can it be done differently? Can more fun be had, can we work more efficiently, can we do a better job? Have we done everything we need to do? It never ends for me," White laughed, knowing any pushback is worth it. "The blessings are multiplied."  

Her drive to change the world and people’s lives for the better is linked to her career at Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) in Little Rock.   

"I was raised by Arkansas Children's. The leadership, the learning, the service, how to impact people and the quality of life that's so important for health all have impacted my leadership journey. I am but for Arkansas Children's," White said.   


Keo to Coast Guard 

White was born and raised in Keo, Lonoke Co., about 30 minutes from Little Rock. While she champions Keo today, as a kid, she couldn’t wait to leave.   

"It was just a small town. I was a regular old kid going to school. I couldn't wait to leave here. There wasn't anything to do; it felt like it was dead," said White, now a married mother of two. "I spent my whole youth looking forward to getting away from here. It was just small, not much to it. It was a safe and good place to grow up, but it wasn't very exciting."   

Two years after graduating from England High School in 1987, she joined the U.S. Coast Guard. Not many women served in the Coast Guard at the time, and she wasn't particularly drawn to that branch of service. She signed up on a whim and served seven years.   

"It is so silly. I wanted to go into the military but didn't know what I wanted to do. I was 18 and working at Dillard's. I was talking to one of the people there, and he said, 'Go into the Coast Guard.'  Two weeks later, I was gone to boot camp. It was impulsive - I would die if my kids did something like that," White said. "I do not test the waters. I just jump straight into the deep end every time."  

White was stationed all over the U.S. as a corpsman, and her time in the military opened the door for nursing. Last stationed in New York City, she cared for a crew of 66. One was her future husband, Ian, a seaman. They married eight months from the day they met.   

"I cared for all their health, pharmacy needs, X-rays, general health, dental, lab - you just do everything. They just had corpsmen and doctors," she said.   

Much like everything else in her life, White's nursing education was not linear. A third generation nurse, White took classes wherever she was stationed. She earned an associate's degree in nursing and later a bachelor's and master's through online and distance-learning classes.   


Home at Arkansas Children’s  

After her discharge in 1996, White worked at a rural community hospital in South Carolina. But her dream was to work in the Arkansas Children's Burn Center.   

"I only wanted to be a burn nurse. I loved wound care. I don't even know why. It's like asking why somebody became a podiatrist - I don't know," White said. "I love that it's task-oriented and the meticulousness of it."   

She was hired as a burn nurse in 1997 and spent the next seven years in that unit. The phrase "patient-centered care" was new at the time, putting her at the forefront of this important shift for Arkansas Children's.   

"I loved working for Arkansas Children's so much because they've always staffed appropriately and made it so that if you cared about making a difference, you can do it. It's been great to work here because of our patient-to-nurse ratio and our ability to provide what our patients need. And they took care of us," White said. "I found that kids were so much easier to care for than adults because they didn't need encouragement to get better; they just did. For adults, you can write an order to get them out of bed three times a day. With kids, it's hard to keep them in the bed. They'll ride their tricycles down the hallway, and that's all they know how to do."   

White, who has worked weekends for all of her career and mostly nights, went on to serve in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), as a resource and special staffing team nurse, relief nursing supervisor, a nurse on the vascular access team and now as a nurse case manager on the discharge, planning and case management team.   

"If a patient could have fun, I'd do something fun with them. We'd blow bubbles to exercise their lungs, have tricycle races in the burn center and Easter egg hunts in the hallways. I worked Christmas overnight, so I'd pass out gifts from Santa," White said. "If a patient was critically ill, I'd make sure they were as comfortable as I would want done for my child."  

In 2010, White became the patient. At her wellness exam, she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 40 years old. There were no lumps and no family history, so by "the grace of God" it was detected.   

"I was afraid because I had small children. It sounds crazy to say this, but it's the God's honest truth - because I had taken care of many children with cancer and I had done a lot of end-of-life care as a PICU nurse, I thought, 'I'm fine as long as it's me and not my children.' To me, the bravery has always been the families that know the severity of their child's illness, but the kids as well. Kids never feel sorry for themselves," she said.  

White made it a point not to miss work, caring for her patients despite her double mastectomy, chemotherapy and targeted hormone therapy. Instead of despairing, she tap-danced.   

"On Tuesdays after chemo, I would tap dance. I cannot feel sorry for myself with tap shoes on my feet. That's happy stuff. I tap-danced my way through chemo," White said.   

Her cancer journey lasted about eight years to being cancer-free today, but the lessons learned helped her to be a better nurse.   

For the past two years, White moved away from the bedside to work as a case management nurse, ensuring care teams and patients have everything they need at the hospital and when they leave.   

"Each case manager handles a team of patients. They plan the things needed to go home for a safe transition. I am responsible for ACH and Arkansas Children's Northwest in Springdale," White said. "It's like problem-solving intensified."   


Mrs. Mayor  

When White is off duty at ACH, she serves as the mayor of Keo, population 207. It all started with some flowers.   

"I was a volunteer in the community. We didn't have any flowerbeds, so I planted flowerbeds in town," she said.   

In 2018, she filled a vacancy on the city council. She quickly started asking questions and digging deeper into the issues with water quality. The city had fines from the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) and the Arkansas Department of Enviornmental Quality (ADEQ), and the iron levels were so high, "We couldn't even wash white clothes, you'd ruin your clothes. It looked like orange juice," White said.   

After one question too many from White, the previous mayor had enough. He resigned and challenged her to see if she could do better. Turns out, she could.   

"That's how I became the mayor with everything in a mess. I'm the fourth female mayor of Keo," she said.   

True to her nature, White got right to work. She received her licenses in water treatment, water distribution and wastewater. "We had poor filtration issues; we didn't know it at the time. It was in a state of disrepair, with broken lines, lots of iron in our water and our meters hadn't been read in 10 months when I took over. I cleaned house. I took my children, and we read meters," White said. "I was able to work with the ADH and ADEQ and get our fines removed and our water up to standards. Since then, we've gotten a couple million dollars in grants and are about to get a whole new water and wastewater system."  

It's one of several crowning achievements of White's mayor-of-the-people style. She still flushes the fire hydrants herself, and residents call her if any water issues arise.   

“I have their phone numbers, and they have mine,” she said of her Keo citizens.   

With a plummeting census, down 19.1 percent, White said the viability of her delta town was drying up, and they’d need more than just clean water.   

"Before starting my master's in nursing, I started on my master's in public health. I changed courses, but I learned how zip codes could predict the social determinants of health life spans," she said.   

White secured a grant for a beautiful downtown park, tended to by her and a volunteer coalition of women. Their community was one of seven that earned the 2023 Arkansas Volunteer Community of the Year awards from Engage Arkansas.   

"For three straight years, I've been working on broadband internet. We're half-covered with high-speed internet. I've been all the way to the senate with it," White said. "I told a senator, 'I'm never going away. Not until my city has broadband internet.'"  

The next steps in White’s revitalization plan have been rebranding the community and promoting economic development.  

Smiling woman wearing white shirt and red overalls sitting at a table in a cafe.Currently, the town’s claim to fame is agriculture and beloved pie shop Charlotte’s Eats & Sweets, where a table is White's office space if she isn’t out and about.  

But things are changing. Keo is now dubbed the Pecan Capital of Arkansas, with an annual Arkansas Pecan Festival. It drew 500 people in its first year in 2022 and 2,500 in the next. It's slated for Dec. 7 this year.   

“That has just snowballed,” she said, adding they are hoping to work with the University of Arkansas Research Development for more revenue streams for Keo’s pecans, including fish food utilized by fish farms.  

On April 30, Keo hosted Arkansas' only Dia Del Niño, or "Day of the Child," celebration, which originated in Mexico to honor children, complete with a street party and proclamation from the governor. White said there are likely 10 people in Keo with Latin American roots, but her promotional ideas stretch beyond her town to surrounding unincorporated areas and the whole state.   

"We believe in ourselves. We can change our trajectory. Now our community is so engaged," White said. "I love that it's small and quaint and safe. People love living here. It's now a tight-knit community based on the work we and I have done. When I leave the hospital, the nurses will say, 'Tell Norman Rockwell we said hello.'"   

And people have noticed her impact beyond just Keo. In March, White was recognized by U.S. Nexstar Media, KARK locally, as a Remarkable Woman during International Women’s Month. She received an all-expense-paid trip to Los Angeles to meet 117 other difference-making women across the U.S.  

No matter what role White steps into each day, she wants her legacy to be about giving back and paying it forward.   

"A difference maker is the word I always come back to. I want to be known and remembered for making a difference and teaching others to make a difference," she said. "I told my director at Arkansas Children's, 'I want to make other people feel like you made me feel; like I can do anything.'"   

*This article was written by the Arkansas Children’s content team.