Dr. Sarah Zallek

Medical Director, INI Sleep Center
Photography by Kira Kwon

I grew up in Peoria and graduated from Bergan (now Notre Dame) High School. I graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in biopsychology and then from Rush University Medical College with an MD. I completed my neurology residency and sleep medicine fellowship at the University of Michigan, where I met my husband, Chris Zallek, also a neurologist. We have two daughters.

Chris and I moved to Peoria in 1998, initially working at Methodist Medical Center, and then at OSF. At that time, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center was ready to start a sleep program, and I was fortunate to direct it. That was a tremendous opportunity to apply what I had learned—and I have learned much more in its development and growth since.

My aim was to develop a strong clinical sleep program that provided the best care we could deliver, addressing all aspects of sleep, with the office and laboratory integrated in the same place. It was definitely a job for a team, not a doctor. Now called the INI Sleep Center, it is part of the Illinois Neurological Institute at OSF HealthCare. Being part of OSF, I work in a mission-driven patient care system that allows us to provide state-of-the-art care to all patients who need it, and cannot imagine finding myself in a better place.

In 2003, I was among the first cohort of the Caterpillar Faculty Scholars Fellowship at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria. I left research behind when I finished my fellowship and was initially focused on patient care, but had developed a strong interest in community, business and physician education in sleep. My research in the Scholars program involved how physicians handle sleep problems with their own patients and how they would like to learn more about sleep medicine. The study itself was interesting, but what it led to has been even more rewarding: mentoring students.

Since 2003, I have worked with 26 undergraduate, graduate and high school students, plus several medical students, to carry out original clinical sleep research, largely based on work at the INI Sleep Center. With some guidance and a lot of freedom and responsibility, the students think critically, research a topic and write papers for publication with a diligence and ability that never ceases to amaze me. Being part of their development—especially at a time when they are making critical decisions about the direction their lives will take—is very rewarding. Knowing some of them now as adults in their chosen fields is even more so.

Since 2005, I have been the director of neurology at OSF, now INI Neurology. The number of neurologists has doubled to 20 in that time, and we now have a very broad range of subspecialists.

Please reflect upon your major accomplishments of 2012.
The INI Sleep Center is only one of several providers of sleep care throughout OSF HealthCare. In the past year, I have been working toward the goal of uniform care for sleep patients at all OSF locations, using the collective expertise and experience of all the providers. With collaboration, we will be able to provide a model of best practices for all our patients.

Our research accomplishments in the past year include a study of the relationship of work shift, work type and sleep duration to a variety of sleepiness and safety measures, which should have particular relevance in certain segments of the workforce and among employer groups. A study demonstrating high patient satisfaction with the use of telemedicine to connect the physician to the patient via video conference was published, and papers on the outcome of behavioral interventions for insomnia in children and the impact of treatment for sleep apnea on body weight are in the works.

I was also honored to be an invited lecturer at the national meeting of the American College Health Association, for physicians who provide healthcare to college students. Teaching physicians and business and community groups about sleep has also been very rewarding. These groups were combined into one audience for an educational event to address how to recognize sleep deprivation and disorders in medical practice and the workplace. Hearing how some attendees used that teaching after the event shows this information is being used to make patients and employees healthier and safer, which is the best reward.

As director of INI Neurology at a time when OSF HealthCare has become a Pioneer Accountable Care Organization in this new era of healthcare reform, I have been part of a leadership team that recognizes the importance of clinical excellence, academic teaching and research, and growth by recruiting talented faculty and staff to our program. We are leading change in the way we care for patients and making our services accessible to those we serve.

In 2006, I became the first woman on the Country Club of Peoria Board of Governors, and am now its first woman president. As a group, the board recognizes the changes in the private club industry and the need to change our club to meet the needs of members and prospective members. It is a pleasure to work with a progressive group while we maintain the tradition of the club.

How has your organization adjusted to changes in the business climate over the last several years?
The business of healthcare has changed dramatically. Technology and science continually add value to our clinical work, which allows powerful improvements in patient care. On the other hand, the economy and other factors have made it more difficult for many patients to afford care, widening the gap for a growing segment of the population. OSF has managed to provide state-of-the-art care to a broad range of patients and at the same time sustain a substantial charity program, in keeping with the Sisters’ mission.

The passage of the Affordable Care Act will continue to have a very big impact on the way healthcare is paid for in the U.S. That affects both the patient and the provider. OSF became a Pioneer Accountable Care Organization to provide quality-based, effective and efficient care to patients.

What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your work and personal life?
Family and friends. We have two daughters we adore, and we live a few doors down from my mother. When work limits free time, I have a lot of family support. Like most of our friends at this stage in life, work is busy, and so is family life. The days are full, but fulfilling. I’m not sure if anyone really gets the work-life balance thing down perfectly, but it seems to work pretty well overall.

What is your leadership philosophy?
Maximize everyone’s potential by letting them work to the best of their ability. Recognize that the power of the team is much greater than the sum of its parts. Create an environment where everyone is enthused to come to work with positive energy. Never do anything the same just because you have always done it that way.

Did you have a mentor in the early stages of your career?
Sandy Templeton, a pathology professor at Rush Medical College, taught me how to think and teach in medicine. He taught a systematic process of analysis to apply knowledge in a logical framework to make a diagnosis. I use those foundations every day in my own practice and every time I teach.

Mike Aldrich, who started the sleep center at the University of Michigan, taught me many things I use every day. He practiced and taught sleep medicine based on data, not opinion, at a time when much was still to be learned in the field. He also carried out significant clinical research by conceiving studies, working with teams to accomplish the work, and writing clearly worded analyses of the findings. He lived an admirable balance of an interesting, satisfying professional life and fulfilling personal life as a husband and father.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Learn to your greatest potential, do your best work and everything will follow. The competition doesn’t matter if you are doing your best work all the time. That came from my father. My mother taught me that a firm handshake and self-sufficiency accomplish a lot—which is funny, because I depend on her so much.

What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
The same advice I would give any up-and-coming professional. Work hard, speak directly and lead with your head, not your heart. Choose what you do carefully so you want to get out of bed every day, and allow the people around you to do their best work. Use your abilities to add the most value to the world around you.

What is one goal you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
Write a book.

How do you unwind after a long day of work?
Hanging out with my family, making dinner, entertaining friends, playing Scrabble or other games, trying to play guitar, reading, driving.

If you could have dinner with anyone past or present, who would it be? Why?
I know this is where I say Jesus Christ, Richard Feynman, Abraham Lincoln or Steve Jobs, but the answer is really my husband. I love his company. He’s one of the smartest and funniest people I know, and there is still so much ground to cover in conversation that we’ll live a long time before we ever run out of interesting things to talk about.

What is your greatest fear?
Hurting someone.

What is your favorite movie?
The Big Chill—adulthood is much more complicated than it looks before you get there. Reservoir Dogs—great story, great writing, and most of all, the brilliant detail that makes the audience believe they have seen the crime that is the center of the story, when in fact, it is never shown at all. iBi

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