During a brief tour of the naval hospital here, one detail about the giant facility is clear: Hospital Corpsman 1st Class (SW) Maria Decena-Taylor is very well-known. In the 10 minutes it took for her to lead this reporter from the center’s front door to her small office, the sailor was stopped nine times.
Sure, details of work are important. But Decena-Taylor also asks about her co-workers’ families, their hobbies — things that come up when you truly know the people you work with.
As the leading petty officer for the Directorate of Nursing Services at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Decena-Taylor leads more than 450 sailors who help care for more than 15,000 patients annually.
For her stellar track record, as well as setting a positive example on duty and off, Decena-Taylor has been named the 2012 Navy Times Sailor of the Year. Besides Portsmouth, she’s also served in Yokosuka, Japan; Newport, R.I.; the now-decommissioned frigate Peterson and Expeditionary Medical Facility Kuwait, where she was the director and leading petty officer for clinical services.
Her command master chief in Kuwait said she “expertly” led 32 sailors in six clinics and provided 100 percent patient satisfaction.
And in the last five years, she’s been selected for Sailor of the Quarter five times; she was the Senior Sailor of the Year at Portsmouth, as well.
Her duties at Portsmouth include the usual things an HM1 would do, such as administrative matters and providing medical care during a crunch. But among her most important roles is serving as the first boss to scores of fledgling sailors fresh out of medical training. It’s their first job out of school, and Decena-Taylor is the first boss to show the new corpsmen the nuances of patient care and the responsibilities of life outside the schoolhouse.
“You’re their leader,” she said. “You’re their surrogate mother.” Decena-Taylor said a sailor’s first leader is one they always remember, so she wants to set a positive example.
“They’re going to compare you to every leader that comes after you,” she said. She added that it’s important to develop relationships with them, too, so she can help them keep their lives in order and forge stronger careers.
It was her ability to make a |solid first impression, and her exceptional ability to communicate with people, that brought her to her current job, said Decena-Taylor’s supervisor, Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman (SW/AW) Kimberly Coore. The two have known each other since recruit training, Coore said, and Decena-Taylor was concerned about her sailors from the beginning.
Coore remembers one incident 19 years ago at the now-closed Recruit Training Center Orlando.
Coore had done something to get in trouble with her commanders, and that meant she had to do pushups. Two hours went by before she rejoined the recruits with throbbing arms.
“As soon as it was over, [Decena-Taylor] was the first one to come in and console me,” Coore said.
Decena-Taylor wanted to know if she was OK, and she helped tend to Coore’s exhausted arms.
It was this ability to relate to others — but also push them to do better — that led Coore to bring Decena-Taylor on staff from another position at Portsmouth.
“I needed someone who had that intrusive leadership,” Coore said.
‘She kicked my butt’
HM2 Robert Payne was one of those who benefitted from Decena-Taylor’s style. He first met her in 2006, when he was a brand-new sailor out of field medicine school and she was one of his bosses.
“She didn’t yell at us, she just laughed,” Payne said. “She’s always smiling, well-groomed, greets you wherever you are. I can’t say I’ve ever seen her mad.” It was a good first job, he said, and after filling other billets, including a deployment with Marines and time spent on ship, he’s back in Portsmouth.
Payne admits when he returned to Portsmouth, he was kind of in a rut professionally and wasn’t doing much to get out of it. He requested to work for Decena-Taylor again, and that request was granted.
He’s very clear about how she treated him.
“She kicked my butt,” Payne said.
Before, he said, he wouldn’t study for his advancement exams or take his professional development too seriously, even though he knew he should.
“You know, HM1 has done a lot for me; I owe it to her,” he said.
He kept poring over thick binders of study material Decena-Taylor had made for him, took his exam and advanced to HM2.
“When the results came out, it was so sweet,” Decena-Taylor said. “That was the first time he hugged me in six years.”
From Goose Creek, S.C., Decena-Taylor, 37, comes from a family of corpsmen. Her husband, HM1 (SW/AW) Sajata Taylor, also works at Portsmouth, in a different area of the hospital. Her father, Eduardo Decena, is a retired chief hospital corpsman, and her younger sister, HM1 (SW) Kristina Decena, serves aboard the amphibious transport dock New York.
Outside of the hospital, Decena-Taylor’s regularly found ways to get corpsmen involved in their communities while sharpening their skills as medical care providers. For example, she led 50 volunteers in providing medical coverage in the 2011 Oceana Air Show and 23 volunteers for a suicide prevention walk. She said these events show corpsmen not only how to work together, but also how to work with people in need. Decena-Taylor’s time left in the Navy may be short. She’s up for chief, but if she isn’t selected, she’s on her way out. It’s always been her dream, she said, to make that rank. The names are expected to come out by the end of July.
Her father, a retired corpsman, did it, and he continues to serve as inspiration. “My father … told me at the beginning of my career to treat people with respect, show sailors that I am loyal to them, and to always do what is right, regardless of who is or is not looking,” Decena-Taylor said.
And if she’s selected, she already knows that her dad, the retired HMC, will affix her new pins.
“I hope to make it,” she said. “I’m not ready to leave the fight yet. I’ve wanted that for my whole career.”