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Provider Spotlight: UF Health Nurse Raises the Bar(bell)

LeeAnn Hewit physician spotlight cover image

LeeAnn Hewitt is the only lactation resource nurse at the University of Florida Health Congenital Heart Center in the pediatric cardiac intensive care unit, where she supports mothers and their infants with lactation, breastfeeding, and critical care needs. She is working toward a PhD in the UF College of Medicine’s biomedical sciences immunology and microbiology program. As part of her work, she conducts research on topics such as preventing Type 1 diabetes using bioactive components derived from human breast milk, and trying to discover the cause of intolerance in some babies to their mother’s milk.

Oh, and she’s a world record-setting powerlifter. Hewitt competed from 2015 to 2019 and hopes to get back to the sport at some point. She set 12 International Powerlifting Federation world records in the sub-junior, junior and open division and was a member of Team USA Powerlifting. We talked with Hewitt about her careers in the arenas of sports and medicine.

LeeAnn Hewitt and her dog, Muffin, strolling through a nature park near Lake Alice.
LeeAnn Hewitt and her dog, Muffin, strolling through a nature park near Lake Alice.

What were your aspirations as an elite athlete?

It was always about just doing my best. Powerlifting, or weightlifting in general, is an interesting sport where, yes, you compete against others, but you are also competing against yourself, always trying to surpass your last best. Initially, I just wanted to become a world champion and win gold for Team USA, and then I realized my journey could encourage others in that they too can do this, that they can feel strong, especially young women. God blessed me with this story, and I am so happy I get to share it.

Can you provide an overview of your achievements as a powerlifter and as a nurse?

During my powerlifting career, I was able to set 12 International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) world records. I also trained at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and joined the Olympic weightlifting youth program. Through competing, I have traveled across the country and around the world. Internationally, my favorite place I competed in was Poland, where I won gold for Team USA and was honored to hold the American flag while the anthem played. In nursing, a lot of my accolades come from patients. Being able to know that I helped a patient or made their day in an ICU, which is typically a very traumatic experience, is very special to me. When children hand me their paper with crayon scribbles as their way of saying thank you, it always makes my day. I keep them at my lab desk as a reminder that what I do is worth a lot. Most of my official nursing awards come from my research. I love challenging the status quo and pushing nurses to have a “seat at the table.” Nurses can be at the bedside and also provide valuable and deeply needed contributions to biomedical science research.

LeeAnn Hewitt wearing the American flag at the IPF Classic World Championships in Killeen, Texas, on June 18, 2016.
LeeAnn Hewitt wearing the American flag at the IPF Classic World Championships in Killeen, Texas, on June 18, 2016.

What was the proudest moment of your Team USA career?

During my Team USA career, I would have to say hearing that I made a difference in someone’s life. I vividly remember a younger female athlete telling me that I inspired her to start lifting and gave her the confidence to allow her to achieve amazing things. It was really humbling to hear because I am just doing what I like to do without realizing that what I am doing is inspiring younger generations to accomplish their dreams. It is beyond what I could have imagined. Of course, I love winning gold, but genuinely, that does not compare to hearing the difference you made in someone’s life, even when you don’t know you’re making a difference.

What interested you to become a lactation nurse?

It started in combination with the research work I was doing for my dissertation. I always knew that I wanted to study something in medicine, but people often ask why breast milk? I felt a calling to explore the unique and amazing maternal infant connection through breast milk. Breast milk immunology is a niche and specialized field, and I am the first at the UF Diabetes Institute to explore it in this way. In my heart, I know that human breast milk helps improve the trajectory of a baby’s health and clinical care outcomes. In research, I love studying the biomechanics of milk and leveraging the components to prevent diseases via novel therapeutics. I enjoy advocating for infants and being able to see those natural milk-derived benefits

LeeAnn Hewitt in the University of Florida’s Diabetes Institute on the day of her White Coat Ceremony, on May 3, 2024.
LeeAnn Hewitt in the University of Florida’s Diabetes Institute on the day of her White Coat Ceremony, on May 3, 2024.

What do you enjoy the most about nursing?

I enjoy standing in the gap — meaning I am the patient’s advocate — really caring for my patients, especially when they are in a vulnerable state and need healing and help. I can be their voice when they might not have one. I enjoy being devoted and committed to my patients and giving them the best health care we can give them.

What is your patient philosophy?

As seen in my time competing, I value being part of a team. I love a team approach to health care, and the fact that the patient is part of the team. We are all working together to make sure they have the best outcomes. Our unit and other ICUs are really cool in the sense that we make it a point to invite patients onto our rounds, as well as their family members. We have a lot of interdisciplinary care, taking this team approach to make the patient feel better.

What are some experiences from powerlifting that have shaped you as a nurse?

I believe seeing different cultures, being able to work with different people all over the world and communicating with them, regardless of language, has been eye-opening. I believe that there is a level of tact, discipline and commitment that it takes to play a sport at that intensity that for sure carries over to my patients and the level of commitment I have to them, always giving my 100%. That is something that has been transferred from lifting to the way I deliver patient care.

LeeAnn Hewitt competing in the IPF World Classic Powerlifting Championships in Calgary, Canada, on June 6, 2018.
LeeAnn Hewitt competing in the IPF World Classic Powerlifting Championships in Calgary, Canada, on June 6, 2018.

How does it feel to know UF Health is now a member of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Medical Network providing care for Team USA?

I think it’s great. I think it’s exceptional. I think we have a strong sense of integrated and interdisciplinary care. Highlighting that is really good stuff for sure. Earnestly speaking, it is like having a vision but still leaning into your purpose. I think UF Health does that. We can achieve great things. We are all different, we all have different roles and abilities, but they’re all still important and add immense value.

If you had one piece of advice to offer aspiring Team USA athletes, what would it be?

When I was competing at my first national competition, I wanted to make a shirt with a quote. When I struggled to find the perfect one, I actually made up my own quote. It goes like this: “Remain strong. Dream big, rise above adversity, and believe in yourself even when your goals seem unattainable.” I still live by this. I think this is the fundamental thinking that all those elite athletes who will be competing on the world stage have: the mentality of having a vision and a dream that they believed and leaned into, regardless of what anybody else thought or the odds they may have had. You have to have some type of grit for it.

About the author

For the media

Media contact

Peyton Wesner
Communications Manager for UF Health External Communications
pwesner@ufl.edu (352) 273-9620