Day 52: Committed to Make This World a Better Place: Sister Mary Jean Ryan
Sr. Mary Jean Ryan is a homegrown success story, having started her nursing career at St. Mary’s School of Nursing and ending her health care career as chair of the board of SSM Health Care, one of the largest Catholic health care systems in the country that includes St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo and St. Mary’s Janesville Hospital. It also includes facilities in Illinois, Missouri and Oklahoma.
In an MBA commencement address, Sister Mary Jean said, “…Passion inspires us to do amazing things. When we have passion for what we do, we call on something deep within ourselves to achieve things we never would have thought possible.”
As longtime president and CEO of SSM Health Care, Sister Mary Jean had spearheaded innumerable organizational initiatives under the umbrella of three key themes: preservation of the earth’s resources, valuing ethnic and gender diversity, and commitment to continuous quality improvement (CQI). The results have been impressive: SSM Health Care has implemented system-wide environmentally friendly policies, 50% of its executives are women, and it received the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2002, the first time a health care organization had earned the award.
Mary Jean Udelhofen grew up in Cuba City, Wisconsin, in the 1940s and 1950s when career choices for women were limited to teaching, becoming a secretary, or nursing.
“I was a lousy typist, and I had no interest in teaching,” she explained. “Nursing was something I thought I could wrap my arms around in a variety of ways.”
In 1959, she graduated from St. Mary’s School of Nursing and worked at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison for a year before moving to St. Louis, Missouri, to enter the convent and become Sister Mary Daniel. She later revived her given name but, as an executive having to provide signatures many times a day, she simplified and changed the last name to Ryan.
She later earned a master’s degree in hospital and health administration, and eventually became St. Mary’s Hospital’s assistant executive director. Sister Mary Jean was the president and CEO of SSM Health Care from 1986 until her recent retirement in 2011. She is now chair of the board.
Sister Mary Jean’s awards are many, and her achievements considerable. She had been named eight years in a row as one of the most powerful people in health care by Modern Healthcare magazine. Sister Mary Jean is the top-ranked woman and the only health system CEO to make the list’s Top 10.
In 1990, she launched a quality improvement initiative across the SSM Health Care system. She wanted to tackle the challenges of financial pressures, nursing shortages and increasingly sophisticated health consumers with high expectations “that we have to be prepared to live up to,” Sister Mary Jean said. Her efforts were rewarded in 2002 when SSM Health Care received the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award from Vice President Dick Cheney.
With a clear vision of the value of ethnic and gender diversity, Sr. Mary Jean is particularly proud that half of the executives in her organization are women. “People of color and women bring so much to any kind of conversation and dialogue because there is so much to be said for diversity of feelings, speaking and behaving,” she said.
She also said it’s her vocation as a sister that gives her work meaning. “Once in a while, I like to push the envelope because I want people to get a better understanding of sisters and how we’re fully human and committed to making this world a better place.”