Kelly Nierstedt

President, OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois

Leading the way for children’s health in a very complex environment

Photography by Sonshine Portrait Design

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. We lived in a very urban, ethnically diverse community. There was no such thing as play dates when I was growing up. We simply went outside and played with the other kids that were outside and did not come home until dinner. My mom and stepfather both worked, making me very independent at an early age. I’ve been married to my wonderful husband, Rich, for almost 26 years. We have three great kids: Ryan, 22; Lexie, 20; and Lindsey, 19.

Describe your educational background. Did you always want to be a nurse or involved in the healthcare field?
I’m a first-generation college graduate. I always knew I wanted to be a nurse, but I didn’t know how to fund my education after high school, so I got a job. I worked my way up from an entry-level position in a bond trading firm on Wall Street to become a licensed securities representative by age 22.

I had great success in that job, but never felt fulfilled. I quit my job and went back to nursing school full-time. As an older student—and wanting to finish quickly—I completed a two-year associate’s degree program which made me eligible to sit for the Registered Nurse licensure exam. I practiced clinically for seven years, then went back to school to complete my bachelor’s degree and then Master of Science in Nursing. The last two degrees were the hardest because I already had three children!

Tell us about your early nursing career and how that led to administrative positions at Virtua Health. What value did your experience as a nurse bring to these roles? 
I spent my entire clinical career as a labor and delivery nurse. It was one of the most humbling and rewarding times in my career. Helping a family bring a new life into the world is such an intimate experience. I am grateful to all of those families who allowed me the privilege to care for them and be part of what was usually one of the happiest days of their life.

Being a hospital administrator was never a career goal for me; it happened gradually. After a series of unit-based leadership roles, including serving as the Director of Labor and Delivery, I was asked to expand my role to provide leadership for all women’s and children’s services, first at one hospital, then for all five Virtua hospitals. With a solid foundation in hospital operations, I was then given the opportunity to lead Virtua’s strategic planning for women’s and children’s services. Marrying hospital operations with organizational strategy gave me the experience and perspective necessary to lead in this very complex healthcare environment.

Being a nurse has always grounded me. I know that first and foremost, my responsibility is to the patients and families we serve.

Describe your experience being hired at OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois and moving to Peoria.
Honestly, I never imagined I would be living in Peoria—or anywhere in the Midwest, for that matter. From my first visit to OSF, I was drawn here. Each and every person I met throughout the interview process spoke of the Sisters’ mission: caring with the greatest care and love. As the processes progressed, I saw so many examples of how the mission is lived each and every day at the Children’s Hospital. The Sisters say that people are called to OSF to do God’s work. I know that is true.

In the weeks before I accepted this position, I was struggling with the prospect of moving my family to Peoria. Although I knew it would be a challenging move, I also felt a great sense of peace. I decided to move to Peoria alone for the first year to allow my daughter to finish her senior year of high school in New Jersey. Being away from my family was harder than I could have imagined. Now reunited with my family, I reflect on a year where the people of Peoria opened their homes and hearts to welcome me into their family and the community. I missed my family, but I never felt alone.

What beliefs drive your work at Children’s Hospital of Illinois?
The people who serve our patients—those we call mission partners—are our greatest asset. If we take care of them, they will live the Sisters’ mission by providing our patients and families with the care and love they need and deserve. To be trusted to care for children is a great privilege and responsibility. Everything we do at the Children’s Hospital puts patients and families above all else.

Kelly Nierstedt
 

Please list and reflect upon your organization’s recent accomplishments.
Some of our recent accomplishments at the Children’s Hospital include:

  • Almost Home Kids is coming to Peoria in the summer of 2018, offering transitional care from the hospital to home for children with medical complexities. In partnership with Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, this home will be one of only three in the country; the other two are in the Chicagoland area.
  • In 2017, U.S. News and World Report ranked Children’s Hospital of Illinois as a top 50 children’s hospital in two specialties: pediatric urology and neonatal intensive care.
  • A new, inpatient Pediatric Hematology/Oncology unit opens at CHOI, and the Small Baby Unit opens in the NICU with an innovative care delivery model for the tiniest babies. Only a handful of these units exist throughout the country. An increasing number of satellite clinics provide families with pediatric specialty care closer to home.

What is one goal you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
Learning to speak Italian, then visiting Italy.

What inspires you?
Selfless acts of kindness.

What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Dedicated, hardworking, loyal.

How do you unwind after a long day of work?
As soon as I walk in the door, it’s makeup off and in PJs. I love having dinner with my family and getting to bed early.

If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? Why?
Alexander Hamilton. I’m reading the book by Ron Chernow that inspired the Broadway musical Hamilton. Against all odds, he became one of the most instrumental leaders in our country’s history. He epitomizes the American dream.

If you hit the jackpot tomorrow, what would you do first?
Sleep in.

If you could swap lives with someone else for a day, who would you choose and why?
Melinda Gates. She has done so much to break the cycle of poverty by helping children access quality healthcare and education.

What is your greatest fear in life? Greatest joy?
Greatest fear: being stuck in an elevator. Greatest joy: my family.

Who is your favorite musician?
I love Barry Manilow. His songs just make me feel good.

How have you worked to develop and implement long-term strategies for OSF HealthCare’s Children’s Service Line? What lies ahead?
The Children’s Hospital of Illinois is the hub of expertise for the care of children in the communities we serve. Our commitment to high-quality, cost-effective care goes well beyond treating children when they are sick or injured. The Children’s Service Line, in partnership with the Children’s Hospital, is advocating and collaborating with community partners to improve the health of children and reduce health disparities in target populations. We are looking at all the factors that affect children's health, including genetics, the environment in which children live, and personal healthcare choices. This requires collaboration with our primary and specialty care physicians, other healthcare providers, community agencies, schools, parents and others to address children's physical, emotional and social needs.

Describe your involvement in the community and some of the causes that are close to your heart.
Being fairly new to my role and the community, I’m leaning more and more about all of the amazing organizations that work to improve the lives of others. I’m a big supporter of the March of Dimes, and my family and I are hoping to become more involved in Sophia’s Kitchen [at Sacred Heart Church].

What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your work and personal life?
I’m a work in progress. Depending on what’s going on, I’m always trying to be mindful of where my time and attention is directed. As my children are getting older and planning their own lives, we have less and less time together. I’m getting better at putting my phone away and making sure I’m completely present when I’m with family and friends. I also limit the amount of evening and weekend work events I attend, allowing others on our team to help represent the Children’s Hospital in the community.

What is your leadership style or philosophy?
Surround yourself with really smart people who share your passion and commitment, give them the tools they need, then get out of their way.

What do you consider to have been the most pivotal point in your career? Why?
As vice president of the Women’s and Children’s Service Line at Virtua, I planned, developed and implemented a new model of care for children’s emergency services at one of our community hospitals. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Grand Opening of our new Pediatrics Hybrid Emergency Department, the chief operating officer at the time, who had been opposed to this new model, said, “I’m glad you never gave up. For years to come, this building and model of care will improve the lives of children in our community.” It was the most humbling, terrifying and exciting point of my career. From that point on, I promised to be a tireless advocate for the care of children, even in the face of opposition.

Did you have a mentor in the early stages of your career?
Paul Minnick, MSN, COO, Virtua Health. I reported to Paul as chief nursing officer in my first nursing leadership position. He would always be very clear on what he wanted accomplished, but he left the details to me. I thrived on the autonomy and wanted more than anything to make him proud. Paul taught me the value of establishing trust. He trusted me to deliver results, and I trusted that he would support my decisions on how to get there. I learned to trust that the people who are closest to the work are the best people to make the decisions that impact that work.

What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
Words matter. I used to pride myself on saying whatever was on my mind. I’ve learned that it’s not always what you say, but how you say it that makes all the difference.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Talk less, listen more.

What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
Follow your dreams. Anything and everything is possible if you work hard and keep your priorities straight. You do not have to choose between being a mom and having a career; you can do both and do them well.

In your opinion, what is the greatest struggle working women face today?
Managing their commitment to work and family. As a society, we need to do a better job supporting working women. iBi

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