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Loyola University Chicago


Sharon L. O’Keefe

Keynote address: School of Nursing

Members of the University’s Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, graduates, and guests: I am honored to be here with you to celebrate this very special occasion. As a graduate of this remarkable school of nursing and former president of Loyola University Medical Center, I feel a tremendous sense of personal pride in addressing the graduating class of 2013. 

Before we honor the Class of 2013, let’s take a moment to honor those who have made this day possible. Please turn around and join me in thanking your family, friends, spouse or partner, parents and children, all who have supported you from your first course through your final exam. Your dream of a career in nursing would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of these individuals. Let’s show them thanks with a big round of applause. 

To prepare for this speech, I did what any Loyola student would do—I did research. I read graduation speeches—from the irreverent to the existential, to the thoughtful and the wise. They all give great advice. Most talk about the characteristics you need to succeed in life.  Most noted are passion, determination, compassion, integrity, leadership, and even a sense of humor.

Having completed the rigors of a Jesuit education you have already had ample opportunity to develop these traits and demonstrate how they influence your daily life. I know of your leadership and compassion through your volunteer work and community service. You have demonstrated your determination by the sheer fact that you are here today receiving your degree. You are graduating from a school that prepares people to lead extraordinary lives.

Building a career of consequence lies ahead. You are entering the health care profession in an era of change, actually unprecedented change, offering incredible opportunities. Let me take a few minutes to talk with you as a nurse who has been on an incredible journey and about the journey that lies before you and offer some words of wisdom from my own journey.

First let me say that having a plan is overrated. Be opportunistic. Ignatius Loyola is noted for saying, “Live life with one foot raised.”  Be always ready to respond to emerging opportunities. Move, change, adapt to emerging opportunities. When I graduated I could not have imagined that my career would include having served as president of Loyola Medical Center and now the University of Chicago Medical Center. It has not been a plan well executed but rather a series of interesting opportunities.

I started my career at Loyola Medical Center in the Intensive Care Unit, which as a new grad was a high-wire act in itself. After working at Loyola for close to 10 years I had the opportunity to move to Johns Hopkins Hospital as the director of surgical nursing. As a native Chicagoan this was a tough decision. I loved Loyola Medical Center and sought counsel from my most valued colleagues. I soon found out that Otto Simon, a mentor and then director of nursing at Loyola, had felt this would be a good career move for me and had arranged for me to interview with Martha Sacci, the vice president of nursing at Hopkins. Truth be told, he actually placed a bet with Martha that he could get me to interview and move. I took the job and he won a very nice dinner compliments of Martha. 

I received much encouragement from many colleagues for my risk taking but was put in my place by my mother whose comment was, “I can’t believe you could not find work in Chicago.” A statement only a native Chicagoan could make. I moved to Baltimore.  A wonderful move as I met my husband at Hopkins and we have enjoyed 25 years together along with moves to New York, Boston, St. Louis, and now back to Chicago.

You will face choices throughout your career.  Choose wisely, take risks, be opportunistic, and accept that you will make some mistakes. Time today limits me from talking about mistakes; trust me there have been a few. Each provided a rich learning experience. Value your missteps as much as your successes.

As you move forward in your career, often opportunity will knock—but sometimes you will need to do the knocking.  Back as a staff nurse in the 2 ICU at Loyola in 1974, my first patient was Willie Smith, room 2147 bed 2—some things you always remember. He was a young man with a crushing chest injury, on dialysis.  I became interested in dialysis, having experienced many a tense moments with Willie in the ICU.  I knew we could be doing a better job with dialysis.

I set up a meeting with Otto Simon to discuss how we could set up an acute dialysis unit. He cancelled no less than six appointments, but I was tenacious. Finally having met with him and laying out my proposal he allowed me to work with the nephrologists, and we opened the first acute dialysis unit at Loyola. This was my first management experience and a great experience in advocating for clinical care improvements. Be persistent and be focused on patient care.

Now that I think about this, perhaps this is why he placed the bet to get me to move to Hopkins.

The dialysis unit remains in operation today. It has served thousands of patients over the years including my father who was received dialysis treatments there for several years. Sitting here today you cannot begin to understand the impact you will have on countless patients and their families, and health care systems over your career. Look for opportunities to affect change and improve people’s lives. This passion will sustain your career.

As I speak with you here today I have enjoyed a career of 39 years in healthcare as a nurse, administrator, and hospital president. The passion to improve the care of patients is why, even today, after many years I can’t wait to go to work every day. 

One last bit of wisdom. Never underestimate the importance of people; your career depends on them. Seek out mentors that have your best interest in mind and are willing to help you shape how you think. Find mentors for your clinical skills as well as your leadership skills. 

Mentors come in all forms. Some help build your self confidence and some help you make decisions. Above all, find individuals who will provide honest feedback and then act on their guidance. Many individuals have shaped my career. From a senior staff nurse in the ICU who challenged me to act when I was caring for a patient who experienced a lethal heart rhythm by asking if I was going to act or just stare at the monitor … to colleagues who have helped me develop the skills needed to lead academic medical centers.   

I joined the University of Chicago Medical Center as president a little over two years ago. It is an amazing organization and a tremendously rewarding position. What is most rewarding are the interactions with the administrators, faculty, and staff. All dedicated to caring and discovery.

Enjoy the diversity of people you will interact with throughout your career. Be a friend; I promise you will gain more than you give. Take risks; let all your choices be fueled by a passionate curiosity. Take time for the simple joys—smile easily, laugh hard, and let yourself be moved by all your life experiences. 

My personal challenge to you is to wake up every morning looking for opportunities to improve the care of patients. Your career may evolve in many different directions, but there will always be an opportunity to make a difference.

My hope for you is that you have a career that is professionally stimulating and personally rewarding.

Congratulations to each and every one of you.  Enjoy your special day.


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