Grab Your Sweet Tea and a Seat on the Porch Swing: Meet Carla Sanderson, A Nurse at Heart

Carla Sanderson Cropped

If you mix two cups of friendship, a spoonful of gratitude, a dash of grit, a pinch of ‘bless your heart’ and sprinkle it with kindness – the result will be an incredibly hospitable and full-of-Southern-charm Carla Sanderson.

Chamberlain University's provost lures you in with her calming drawl and tales of life in the south – elaborate bridal tea parties lined with doilies, heirloom china, punch bowls and desserts galore, to memories created with her supper club over the last 40 years and cruising down the Tennessee River with her husband, children and grandbabies. Suffice it to say, Carla’s Tennessee roots run deep and her neighbors are simply extended family.

“It’s home – I have a deep sense of place there. I have not transitioned away from this community because it is part of who I am and I have friends and neighbors I want to grow old with.” And while she may be grounded in the South, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t ventured out to serve in this world. 

Giving Back – Domestically and Abroad

A recipient of an international grant, Carla once traveled to Iraq to host an accreditation-standards workshop in Kurdistan. In rural villages of Honduras, she Stepped Forward by organizing nearly a dozen medical missions with a team of 50-60 nurses, physicians, dentists, pharmacists, linguists and theologians, paired with students studying in each of these areas. “It’s a wonderful cause and, oh my – the night sky there is simply magnificent.”

Carla also helps restore and reestablish nursing education in the Caribbean post Hurricane Irma in partnership with Adtalem sister institutions. At home, she volunteers through a ministry outreach of her church by participating on a medical response team in a program called “Room in the Inn” for the homeless and in a local soup kitchen. Plus, Carla serves on the boards for two higher-education organizations and her church, and she helped establish new nursing programs at faith-based colleges, two of which have founding deans whom Carla mentored.  

Boys and Sports

Students have always held a special place for Carla, whose family hosted several college students over the years who needed a place to bunk. Carla, her husband and three sons always remained ready to serve up “home” for students as well as a pack of boys from the neighborhood. “We kept a company meal in the pantry and the sports channel on our TV at all times.”

She is a big fan of watching tennis and has seen Roger Federer and Martina Navratilova play at Wimbledon. When it comes to college football… move over Tennessee Volunteers, it’s Gator love for this University of Florida alumna and her family. As for playing, it’s all about water sports for Carla including parasailing and her newest venture into paddle boarding — anything that happens on the Tennessee River.

Ridin’ on the River

In fact, it was a mutual love for the river that led Carla and her forever love Larry to connect at her sister’s wedding. “Our first date was water skiing on a Sunday afternoon.” They still have a small cabin on the Tennessee River, about 75 miles away from their home – “some of our best memories are there.”

Carla loves her hometown and having her family within driving distance. She counts her blessings that her three sons remain close. One son Cody, who has special needs, works in a local elementary school cafeteria and is an avid duck hunter and fisherman. Clayton and Cullen work and travel for international companies but both have come back to Tennessee and are home-based in Memphis. It seems the family’s river cabin will always be “an adult-child magnet” for all three of them. 

All in the Family

And then there’s the grandbabies, who affectionally refer to Carla and Larry as Waddie and Bop. Waddie loves to throw slumber parties – no parents allowed – for Clayton David, 5 years old; sister Sadie, 3 (the first female Sanderson girl in nearly 70 years) and baby Ethan, 2 months. Last summer, Carla and her sister hosted their grandchildren for the first annual cousin camp at the river cabin, an event they plan to repeat in a few months. Carla’s sister, an elementary school administrator, cultivates the sense of wonder and Carla delivers food and fun. 

Helping Others

Taking care of others, especially her dad after a ruptured disk surgery years ago, is what first lured Carla into the nursing profession. During his two-week recovery, she watched nurses tend to his every need and keep him comfortable. “I thought, ‘what an incredible job – to help people and alleviate their pain and suffering.’ I never looked back.” 

Thinking back to her nursing school days, Carla attests to the hard work and life-changing patient-care encounters that stretched her to the limit but smiles when she remembers how she got through it – family, friends, community and faith. She fondly recalls time spent at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis where she studied – “I loved every square inch of that building. To this day, there is nothing finer to me than a hospital at 6:30 in the morning.” 


This or That
  • Beach or pool? River
  • Gym shoes or sandals? Flip flops
  • Sweet or salty? Combined
  • TV or book? Books
  • Favorite Southern delicacies? Hush puppies prepared correctly, sorghum molasses and cheese straws
Carla’s Claim to Fame
  • Nurse for Vernon Presley – Elvis’s dad; she had the privilege of holding his hand as he died
  • Once had dinner with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Mikhail Gorbachev and ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher – “not all at the same time and not at the same table but in the same banquet hall; I did meet and visit with each one in my office before the banquet”
Carla’s Fun Facts
  • Once worked on a barge for a day
  • Loves domestic life, especially cooking and setting the table for dinner parties
  • Relishes the challenge of keeping orchids alive and bulbs blooming at the right time
  • Traveled to see Elvis impersonators with college roommates (they still travel together but not to see Elvis, who coincidentally died at the hospital where they studied)
Carla’s Bucket List
  • Finish writing her book Somebody’s Brother about raising a son with special needs 
  • Complete a river-property project restoring a Civil War era iron-ore furnace
  • Boat from one end of the Tennessee River to the other – Paducah, Kentucky down Tennessee through northern Mississippi and Alabama and back up into Tennessee north of Knoxville
  • Complete a seminary-level theology course
  • Serve on a hospital board

Take the First Step

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