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In memoriam

Debbie Kemp Kimbro remembered for her ability to build connections

“She developed friends everywhere she went in her professional and personal life with her warm and engaging personality," said C. Wright Pinson of the EMS nurse, LifeFlight nurse, physician liaison and singer for the VUMC band Soul Incision.

by January 24, 2023

Deborah “Deb” Anderson Kemp Kimbro, RN, a former Emergency Department nurse, flight nurse with Vanderbilt LifeFlight, and physician liaison at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, died Jan. 10.

“Debbie Kemp was widely known for her role as an EMS nurse, her work as a LifeFlight nurse, an educator, and later as a community and physician liaison for VUMC,” said C. Wright Pinson MD, MBA, Deputy CEO and Chief Health System Officer at VUMC. “She developed friends everywhere she went in her professional and personal life with her warm and engaging personality. We are very lucky in so many ways she crossed our path at VUMC. Our hearts go out to her husband, Barry, her family and friends at this sudden loss.”

A native of Kentucky, Kemp earned her nursing degree from Kentucky Baptist School of Nursing and began her nursing career in 1973 with Louisville Emergency Medical Services. Kemp joined VUMC in 1988, recruited by John Morris, MD, then medical director for the Nashville Fire Department, to be an “EMS nurse.” She also flew as a flight nurse with Vanderbilt LifeFlight until 1991.

“She was literally the heart and soul of Soul Incision,” said Norm Urmy, co-founder of the band and former executive vice president for Clinical Affairs at VUMC. “Audiences loved her, and she loved them. She helped to make our band a true family, and she always reminded us of what we had when, at the end of every performance, she would exclaim ‘I love my life!’”

“Debbie had remarkable people skills,” said Morris. “Throughout her career, she used those skills to advance the Medical Center’s image in the community. In the early part of her career, she was instrumental in the development of the trauma system in Middle Tennessee.

“As the nurse educator for the Nashville Fire Department, she was responsible for paramedic education, and importantly she was instrumental in developing trust between the fire department and the newly designated Level 1 trauma center at Vanderbilt. Later in her career, Debbie became a LifeFlight nurse and continued to use her people skills to enhance awareness of the value of the trauma system to Middle Tennessee.”

Kemp retired from the Medical Center in October 2019 as a physician liaison covering nine counties in Tennessee, including Williamson County. It was a role well-suited for her outgoing personality as she connected community-based physicians with VUMC providers and resources to improve patient care.

“She was beloved in Williamson County. She was one of the primary persons that helped us develop the presence, relationships and business that we have in that area. She was a connector and a relationship person, and she did an outstanding job.”

“In my opinion, the strength of the Vanderbilt presence in Williamson County would not be what it is today if it were not for Deb Kemp,” said Vice President of Patient Experience Brian Carlson. “She was beloved in Williamson County. She was one of the primary persons that helped us develop the presence, relationships and business that we have in that area. She was a connector and a relationship person, and she did an outstanding job.”

“Debbie was a bright light to all who knew her and was an excellent role model as a physician liaison at Vanderbilt,” said Michele Hesselrode, MMHC, senior director of the Physician Outreach & Connections Department.  “She was a great friend and mentor to many, and I am so fortunate I had the opportunity to work with Debbie when I first started at Vanderbilt. She led the way for our team and will be greatly missed.”

Perhaps Kemp’s love of VUMC is best illustrated by the fact that several of her family members followed her to be employed at the Medical Center. Her son, Gabe Kemp, works in Emergency Medicine Research; his wife, Heidi Kemp, RN, works in the GI Endoscopy Lab; her daughter-in-law, Brittney Kimbro, MPH, is an associate director of Value Based Operations for Vanderbilt Health Affiliated Network; and her daughter-in-law, Kendra Kimbro, works as a physician liaison in VUMC’s Physician Outreach and Connections Department.

Deb Kemp in the center of this group photo of Soul Incision, taken in 2005 for VUMC’s House Organ magazine. Surrounding her, clockwise from top left, Ed Shultz, Steve Smartt, Wright Pinson, Jeff Byrd, Bryan Brand, Robert Early, Norman Urmy and Carole Byrd. File photo by Dana Johnson.

Many will also remember Kemp for her high energy singing and joyful stage presence as an entertainer. Growing up in rural Kentucky, Kemp polished her vocal skills by singing at church, local talent shows and county fairs. She and her older sister entertained themselves by singing into pretend microphones as they spun records of their favorite artists such as Rosemary Clooney and Patti Page.

After completing her nursing degree, Kemp began responding to ads from bands seeking vocalists, and from 1975 until 1982 she balanced her time between nursing and touring with rock ’n’ roll and country groups.

When Kemp moved to Music City to work at VUMC, she was eager to connect with a band in need of a singer.  She became a founding member in 1998 and well-known as a beloved vocalist for Soul Incision, a band made up of Medical Center and Vanderbilt University professionals still playing together at the time of her death.

In a 2005 profile of Soul Incision that appeared in the former VUMC publication House Organ, Kemp said, “One day I was walking through the parking garage, and I bumped into Bryan Brand. He said, ‘We’re putting this band together for fun. It’s Norman Urmy, and Wright Pinson and me. We’ve got a bass player that Norm takes guitar lessons with, and he’s going to get us started. We’ve got a sax player, Jeff Byrd, who’s showing up this week, but we don’t have anybody who can sing.’

Kemp shared, “The curiosity factor alone was enough for me to just say, ‘I’ll be there.’”

Her powerful yet soulful delivery of lyrics and easy connection with the band earned her the title “Diva I”. Kemp shared vocal responsibilities with Jenny Franke and later Carol Byrd and Jonelle Mosser. Over the years she was also backed up by Ed Shultz, Ralph LaNeve, Robert Early, Steve Smartt and Frank Fish, performing all over Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as many out-of-state road gigs as far as Hawaii. Debbie shared the stage with Charlie Daniels, Vince Gill, Delbert McClinton, Jo Dee Messina, Blue Miller, Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea, Lari White, Linda Davis, Billy Dean, Montgomery Gentry and Trick Pony, among others.

“Deb was one of the wisest, most grounded and positive souls I’ve ever known,” said Carol Byrd. “She never took anything for granted. She lifted up others with her smile and celebrated life in word, deed and song every day. It has been one of my greatest blessings to love, learn and sing beside her all these years.”

Jeff Byrd said he would “always remember her generous, encouraging spirit” and how she “mesmerized audiences with her soulful singing.”

“Debbie had remarkable people skills,” said John Morris. “Throughout her career, she used those skills to advance the Medical Center’s image in the community. In the early part of her career, she was instrumental in the development of the trauma system in Middle Tennessee.

“She was literally the heart and soul of Soul Incision,” said Norm Urmy, co-founder of the band and former executive vice president for Clinical Affairs at VUMC. “Audiences loved her, and she loved them. She helped to make our band a true family, and she always reminded us of what we had when, at the end of every performance, she would exclaim ‘I love my life!’”

Kemp is survived by her husband, Barry Kimbro; her sister, Jackie (Phil) Higdon; son, Gabe (Heidi) Kemp, and their twins, Parker and Kennedy; son, Will (Kendra) Kimbro, and their son, Charlie; and son, Scott (Brittney) Kimbro, and their son, Carver.

A celebration of life for Kemp will be Saturday, Feb. 11, at 2-5 p.m., at The Hills Nashville, 120 Belle Forest Circle, Nashville. Donations in her memory can be made to Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. In lieu of flowers, the Kemp-Kimbro family requests that you embody Deb’s livelihood and spread joy every single day.

File photo by Steve Green.

Debbie Kemp Kimbro, music, John Morris, LifeFlight, emergency department, Soul Incision, C. Wright Pinson, Norman Urmy, Brian Carlson, Michele Hesselrode, Carole Byrd, Jenny Franke, Jeff Byrd, Bryan Brand, Frank Fish, Steve Smartt, Ralph LaNeve, Ed Shultz