Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2017 Honorees
Pittsburgh Magazine highlights the unsung heroes of the health care field: our Excellence in Nursing honorees, chosen by our panel of distinguished nursing professionals.
For many who enter the profession, the appeal of nursing is the dynamic nature of the field. As evidence-based research yields new best practices, every nurse must be prepared to adapt. The days of doing what has always been done simply because it’s what has always been done are gone. With so much opportunity for improvement, nurses are known to push each other to learn more, do more and be more.
While that drive makes for better, more adept nurses, the downside is the frequent turnover the field often experiences. Unlike previous generations, today’s bedside nurses do not typically stay in one job for the duration of their careers. And as a flood of baby boomer nurses approach retirement age, demand continues to grow.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor reports nurse employment will grow by 20 percent over a decade by the year 2022. More than half a million nurses are expected to leave the labor force in that time, but growth in the field is expected to create a need for 1.13 million new nurses. With two of western Pennsylvania’s largest healthcare employers, UPMC and Allegheny Health Network, announcing significant expansion plans, that need is absolutely going to grow locally.
As the region faces these challenges, this year’s second annual Excellence in Nursing honorees are setting the example of how to make the future of the field as bright as possible in a wide variety of settings and disciplines.
Educator John O’Donnell of the University of Pittsburgh is shaping the future with a hands-on approach to simulation technology. Advanced Practitioner Francis Feld of UPMC Passavant has applied his skills in the hospital setting, in the classroom and in parts of the world ravaged by disaster. Clinician Jordan Sosko is helping her pediatric oncology patients explore holistic approaches to managing their symptoms. In her role as a home hospice nurse with Allegheny Health Network, Community Nurse Karen Ricci never hesitates to go out of her way for her patients and their families. Emerging Leader Amber McGeehan heads up the operating rooms at Heritage Valley Beaver and the Heritage Valley Surgery Center with each and every patient at the forefront of her mind. Leader Tami Minnier is making sure every person cared for in the UPMC system has the best experience possible in her role as chief quality officer.
Their above-and-beyond dedication to their field makes each an ideal example for future generations of nurses. Read more about them in the pages that follow.
photo by paul phrampus
The director of the Nurse Anesthesia Program at the University of Pittsburgh has plenty of reasons to be proud: the program consistently ranks as one of the top 10 in the country, it has 100 percent job placement for graduates and there’s access to cutting-edge technology.
But for John O’Donnell, the most fulfilling moments come when one of his students has an “aha moment.”
“I think the most fun I have is seeing people put together complicated or abstract things and actually understanding how they might apply,” says O’Donnell, 56, of Emsworth. “I get to see that every single day. To me, that is super exciting.”
A retired United States Army Nurse Corps Officer, O’Donnell has practiced at UPMC Presbyterian-Montefiore Hospital and Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC. He earned his nursing degree at then-Carlow College, was a member of the first class of Pitt’s nurse anesthesia program and received his Doctorate of Public Health in 2009.
O’Donnell, husband of Melinda and father of three children, who all attended or currently attend Pitt, has served in his role as program director since 1995.
Since 1998, Pitt’s master’s program in nurse anesthesia has been ranked in the top 10 schools in the country by U.S. News & World Report; in 2016, it took the top honor; today, it’s at No. 4. O’Donnell attributes much of the attention to the visibility of faculty in the field; “tremendous support” within the university’s School of Nursing; and availability of educational resources, particularly Pitt’s Peter M. Winter Institute for Simulation, Education and Research (WISER), a world-class multidisciplinary training and research facility.
“We are really fortunate to be at the heart of a new educational method that is sweeping the world and which is now recognized as necessary for training of healthcare professionals, especially those who do procedures and highly technical skills,” he says.
Simulation technology is at the heart of O’Donnell’s scholarly work. He also serves as WISER’s associate director, speaks around the world on simulation methodology and is co-author of the iSIM (Improving Simulation Instructional Methods) course offered around the world.
“Every single one of my students does around 900 anesthetics and 2,700 hours of work in the clinical setting before they leave,” he says. “I can’t guarantee every student is going to see an allergic reaction or a massive trauma. The only way we can make sure every student is ready for those experiences is to give them a similar experience in a safe environment where no patient is at risk.”
O’Donnell is advancing the field of simulation technology as a consultant for LUMIS CORP., a team developing an augmented reality simulation system called Body Explorer.
O’Donnell likens it to a Nintendo Wii, where the user works on a manipulatable image projected onto a body to take a pulse, ventilate or perform a variety of other procedures.
“You can peel back layers of the anatomy, and when you got down into the chest, the heart is actually beating and moving just like it would in a real person,” O’Donnell says.
“When you inject medicine into the IV, you can see the heart change related to how the medicine was administered. You can put in a breathing tube and see the breath sounds change.”
Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob, dean of Pitt’s School of Nursing and one of Pittsburgh Magazine’s Excellence in Nursing panel members, says O’Donnell is widely recognized as someone helping drive advances in his field.
“John is a very passionate, dedicated and enthusiastic educator,” she says. “We are very proud of him, the program and faculty he leads.”
Francis Feld has worked everywhere from professional football stadiums to makeshift medical tents.
Feld, 63, is a certified registered nurse anesthetist at UPMC Passavant Hospital specializing in thoracic anesthesia, a paramedic for Ross West View EMS, medical group supervisor for the Allegheny County Hazardous Materials Medical Response Team and a supervisory nurse specialist for the Federal PA-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team.
Needless to say, he appreciates a challenge.
The need to constantly adapt to new scenarios and stay on top of an ever-changing field is what drew Feld to nursing.
“It’s nice to go to work knowing you have to bring your A game every day,” he says. “You have to be able to adapt and think ahead.”
Prior to entering the nursing field, Feld, who lives in Ohio Township with wife Christine, worked as a certified athletic trainer at Center High School in Beaver County (now Central Valley), the University of Pittsburgh and with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I was looking for something else that could give me different options,” says Feld, the son of a World War II Navy nurse. “One of the things about nursing that was always interesting to me was that you could move around and work in different areas of the hospital and that would make you a more well-rounded professional. You could really expand your horizons and never get bored.”
In addition to his bachelor’s degree in history and master’s in sports administration from the University of Pittsburgh, Feld earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Duquesne University, a master’s in nurse anesthesia from LaRoche College and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from Carlow University; he also spent 16 years at UPMC Mercy Hospital working in cardiac and trauma anesthesia. For the last five years at Passavant, he’s worked primarily with patients undergoing lung and esophageal surgery.
In addition to the daily challenge of his work, Feld appreciates his employer’s flexibility when it comes to the demands of his role as a member of the federal disaster medical assistance team. UPMC is “incredibly supportive” when he is deployed to assist in emergency situations, he says. Feld has been sent to help with recovery for Hurricanes Gustav, Rita, Lee, Sandy, Matthew and Harvey.
His work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake had a profound impact on his life, both personally and professionally, he says.
“That was one of the life-changing events,” he says. “I was down there for nine days, working about 18 hours a day. You learn that we worry about a lot of things in life that really aren’t important enough to worry about when there are other people who are suffering. They would love to have the problems we sometimes think are major obstacles for us. Sometimes, their entire existence is nothing but survival.”
Feld also is a regional faculty member for the American Heart Association and teaches in ACLS (advanced cardiovascular life support), PALS (pediatric advanced life support), and BLS (basic life support) in the WISER center at Pitt. His work as an educator has earned him the appreciation of many former students, including Keith Gorse, assistant professor and clinical coordinator at Duquesne University’s Department of Athletic Training.
Feld taught Gorse when the latter was a student in the athletic training program at Pitt. Gorse says Feld taught him, “If you’re going to do something, do it right.”
“I expect myself to do my best because I know Fran does the same,” Gorse says. “He’s a very honest person. He tells it like it is. If you’re doing something right, he lets you know. If you’re doing something wrong, he lets you know and teaches you how to make it right. That’s what makes him such a good teacher — he’s very direct and thorough.”
Gorse says Feld’s dedication to excellence in his field makes him a “huge figure in the healthcare profession in the City of Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania.”
“Fran wears the most hats of anyone I’ve ever known,” Gorse says.
Jordan (Coltura) Sosko
When Jordan Sosko tells people what she does for a living, the response is usually something along the lines of, “I could never do that.” To Sosko, a pediatric oncology nurse at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, there is no other job she’d rather do.
“I get to work with the strongest kids on the planet,” says Sosko, 31, of North Huntington. “The fight they fight is incredible. It’s amazing to see people going through the worst-case scenario in life and they’re so positive. It’s the most rewarding thing in the world.”
Sosko set out to become a pediatric oncologist, and in her sophomore year as a pre-med student at the University of Pittsburgh, she did a work study at Children’s diabetes research lab. There, she learned nurses get to be with the patients and families day in and day ou,t through the good and bad.
“I’d never seen people who love their jobs the way nurses do,” Sosko says. “It was a light bulb moment when I realized I could do this every day and get paid for it. Ever since, I’ve felt that way. Most people can’t say they’re lucky enough to go to work every day and be excited about it. Every day, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Sosko graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Pitt and attended Edinboro University’s accelerated bachelor’s in nursing program. Today, she is working toward a master’s in nursing education and leadership at Carlow University with hopes of becoming a clinical instructor.
She has worked at Children’s for five years, starting on the inpatient unit then moving to outpatient, and has made an impact far beyond what the role requires. Since March, Sosko has served a nurse ambassador for Up Street, a partnership between Children’s and Lending Hearts, a nonprofit dedicated to providing emotional and social support to young cancer patients. The wellness initiative provides yoga, aromatherapy, mindfulness, meditation and more to help patients cope with the symptoms and lifestyle changes accompanying a cancer diagnosis. For example, many patients experience chemo-induced nausea and are sensitive to the saline used to flush their ports.
“We’ve found the littlest bit of citrus oil can keep the kids from getting sick,” Sosko says. “It’s literally something that takes 10 seconds.”
Aromatherapy also helps with anxiety, as does yoga, which patients can practice with a certified instructor at bimonthly classes.
Sosko’s role as ambassador was ideal for the longtime yoga enthusiast, and Lending Hearts founder and executive director Vasso Paliouras says the fact that three more nurses are training to take on similar roles is a testament to the passion Sosko exudes for her work.
“The world needs a million Jordans,” Paliouras says. “She’s just that wonderful, loving, caring person. To her, she’s just doing what she loves, but the benefits to others are profound.”
Sosko, who lives with her husband Matthew Sosko and is president of the Greater Pittsburgh/Three Rivers chapter of the Association of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Nurses, says she’s able to do all she does because of the support of her coworkers, who share her love for the work. Toni Cella, a fellow senior professional staff nurse who’s worked alongside Sosko for five years, calls her a leader among their peers.
“We have kids that can easily crash quickly, and it takes a team effort to get them stabilized again,” Cella says. “She’s always jumping to the front of the line to help out in any way she can.”
She’s also an “amazing advocate for patients,” Cella says, often showing she cares even outside hospital walls at fundraisers and finding special ways to support the kids and their families.
“She’s just a good person, simply put,” Cella says.
Part of Karen Ricci’s job is listening to a lifetime worth of stories.
As a registered nurse hospice case manager with Allegheny Health Network Healthcare@Home, she loves hearing the tales that have shaped the lives of her patients. Ricci, 52, of Forest Hills, considers getting to know each person at this stage of life a great honor.
“It’s a privilege for people to welcome you into their homes,” she says. “They make you part of the family. So many people say, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ but to me, I feel it’s an important function. I just feel really lucky.”
After earning her RN diploma from St. Francis Medical Center’s Professional School of Nursing, where she briefly worked after graduating, Ricci worked at St. Margaret Memorial Hospital (now UPMC St. Margaret) for a few years before taking a job in health insurance utilization management and case management with Intracorp, now Cigna. She had a knack for technology and later worked in supporting the clinical systems and in configuration and training at Pyramid Health then UnitedHealthcare. The desk jobs were ideal when she was raising her two children but Ricci knew she wanted more.
One day, she attended the kids’ swim practice and met another mom who was a hospice nurse.
“This may sound ridiculous, but it was like I had an epiphany,” Ricci remembers. “I thought, ‘That’s what I need to do.’”
But she still needed the convenience of the office job. She stayed for a few more years, but always told herself, “When I leave here, I’m going to be a hospice nurse.” The day she and husband Geno sent their daughter’s last college tuition payment, Ricci started to lay the groundwork for her new career. She took as many continuing education classes as she could related to hospice and palliative care.
Ricci’s experience extended beyond the classroom when she cared for her own mother, Ronnie Campbell, who had hospice care prior to her death 2009.
“That solidified for me that this is, in fact, what I wanted to do,” she says.
Ricci met her goal when Allegheny Health Network hired her in 2016.
“I think the rest of my career was a stepping stone to me to get to this,” she says. “There were things I learned from each experience, good or bad, that prepared me for this role, but this is where I ultimately wanted to get to.”
Ricci knows her line of work is not for everyone, but death is something she’s always felt comfortable talking about. Her grandfather was a funeral director — a career path her son followed — and the topic of dying was freely discussed in the family.
“I was always exposed to that,” she says. “I felt comfortable in extending condolences. That was always something that was on the forefront and talked about.”
Ricci sees up to six patients a day between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., but that doesn’t mean her day always ends there. Ramie O’Brien, hospice operations manager and Ricci’s supervisor, remembers when Ricci went out at 9 p.m. to be with a new orientee who needed help.
“She always goes above and beyond,” says O’Brien. “She is a leader to the staff and a really good patient advocate. Whether that means she sees eight patients a day because she had two emergencies or had to attend to the death of a patient and she doesn’t get done working until later, she’s dedicated.”
Ricci says her work ethic is rooted in something she heard in church the day before she began her job with AHN: “Take time to be present in the hour of need.” She wrote that on a piece of paper and looks at it daily before seeing patients or interacting with her co-workers.
Ricci becomes emotional when talking about the patients who have touched her life, including the man with 11 children, each of whom took turns caring for him and treated Ricci as one of the family. She recalls the 96-year-old veteran, who, in his 70s, became a golf starter at one of the local courses.
“He worked until he was 95 years old,” she says, choking up at the memory. “I just had a great relationship with him and loved to hear his stories.”
It’s those stories that let Ricci know she’s found her purpose.
“I’m glad I found this niche and it’s welcomed me,” she says.
Surgery has always been the flashier side of health care — there’s a reason a new TV show about it seems to debut every season. As a young nurse, Amber McGeehan was interested in what went on behind those operating room doors.
“Once you get there, it’s a completely different story,” she says with a laugh. “But I fell in love with it.”
For the last three years, McGeehan, 41, has been the operating room manager at Heritage Valley Beaver and the Heritage Valley Surgery Center. McGeehan has spent most of her career in surgical services, first as a staff nurse, then as a perioperative educator at Salem Regional Medical Center in Salem, Ohio, and finally as director of surgical services at East Liverpool City Hospital in East Liverpool, Ohio, before coming to Heritage Valley.
McGeehan, who lives in Calcutta, Ohio, with husband, Tim, and a teenage daughter and son, holds a BSN from Wheeling Jesuit University, an MSN from University of Phoenix and an MBA from Chadron State College. She also has earned her CNOR, denoting competency in the specialized field of perioperative nursing, Certified Surgical Services Manager; she’s also a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives.
“There are not many people with the same amount of certification at her age,” says Kathy Harley, Heritage Valley’s vice president and chief nursing officer of surgical and procedural services. “She’s balancing a challenging career, a family and continued education and certification, and she’s doing it very well.”
McGeehan’s goal for every day she comes to work is to “do the greatest good for the greatest amount of people.” She believes excellent patient care comes from promoting competency and engaging employees to perform at their best.
“I want people to be passionate about the field they’re working in and to always follow evidence-based standards,” she says. “I always tell my staff, ‘I’m not telling you this because it’s what Amber said. It’s because research has shown that if we do these certain things, that patients have better outcomes.’’’
She also isn’t afraid to speak up when she sees a behavior out of line with optimal patient care, says Harley. “She’s standing up for the patients, and that’s what it’s about,” she says. “It’s why we come to work every day.
“Amber has earned the respect of the surgeons she’s worked with, the staff reporting to her, and her colleagues quite quickly,” Harley adds. “She is very open, honest and genuine. She wants to take things to a higher level. She gets that the patient is the center of it all and we all have to be rowing in the same direction if we really want to effect change.”
As the ever-changing nature of nursing is particularly evident in surgical services, McGeehan strives to remain current by attending conferences, maintaining relationships with vendors and working closely with surgeons. Her biggest challenge, however, is the increasing demand for perioperative nurses. She requires all prospective hires to shadow in the operating room for a day so they can get a sense of what happens behind those closed doors. She wants everyone who works in her operating rooms to find the work as fulfilling as she does, as that translates into better patient care.
“I am just all about creating optimal patient experiences,” she says. “Every patient makes a difference. Every family makes a difference. There’s not one insignificant patient or person. I always have that in my mind. The patients are placing their lives in our hands. We have to take this very seriously.”
As UPMC’s chief quality officer, Tami Minnier loves overhearing someone talk about a service she helped improve.
“That’s what it’s all about — making things better,” says Minnier, 55, who lives in Oakmont with her teenage son. “When you can hear those stories, you know you made a difference for a patient. That’s what I love to hear.”
In her role, Minnier is responsible for quality and safety at UPMC. She oversees the Wolff Center at UPMC, dedicated to quality of care, improvement, and safety. She also is executive director of the Beckwith Institute, a $15 million dollar foundation supporting innovation in care delivery and shared decision making.
Minnier started thinking about how to best care for others in her childhood. Her father suffered a heart attack when she was just two months old, and she grew up admiring the physicians and nurses who cared for him.
She earned her BSN and master’s degree in nursing administration from Pitt’s main campus.
“I always knew I had an interest in leadership,” she says. “I recognized how broken the systems and processes were within the nursing world. I knew as a nurse leader, I could make it better for more people.”
Minnier worked in senior management at Bradford Hospital, but knew she wanted to branch out. She took a position as associate vice president of geriatrics at Shadyside Hospital (prior to UPMC acquiring the property), and went on to become the hospital’s chief nursing officer.
“That was really where I became completely energized and focused on the concepts of quality,” she says. “We had great board leadership. They were very passionate about quality, and very passionate about what was happening across the country.”
That board included Don Wolff, for whom the Wolff Center is named.
She’s worked at her current job for the past 11 years. Susan Christie Martin, senior director at the Wolff Center, calls Minnier a “precious resource” in her field.
“She is attentive and inspirational, and people want to be part of that,” she says. “She’s like the cement to the system. At the bottom of all things, you’re going to find her there.”
Minnier pays close attention to her employees and is invested in them as people as well as professionals, which Martin says translates into better patient care.
“It sends the message that we can do better and we will do better,” she says. “Our patients are why we are here, period. When that’s clear … the team is not afraid to speak up, push the envelope or drive people outside of their comfort zones.”
Minnier says much of the work she does is simply about listening to the patient.
“Patients have to be heard,” she says. “You actually have to pause and have a conversation with a patient and say, ‘What is it that you want here? What are your goals? What are you thinking about?’’’
Minnier has been part of the implementation of many practices aimed at improved patient care during her career. The Wolff Center worked with Dr. Dan Hall, affiliated with the VA and UPMC, to begin using a risk assessment index for frailty to assess how well prepared a patient is to physically undergo a surgical procedure. Screening started two years ago with patients having elective surgery and resulted in the development of UPMC’s Centers for Pre-Surgical Care.
“My job is to advocate for this work, to remove barriers, and to get the right leaders at the table to support what the clinical team is attempting to accomplish,” Minnier says. “It’s been that kind of alignment and collaboration that has allowed projects like this and so many others to be really successful.”
A recent project involves educating the public about adding emergency contacts to their smartphones that don’t require unlocking to access. The initiative stems from an incident in which a 19-year-old man who had been in a motorcycle accident arrived at a hospital with no identification. The young man died, and due to several circumstances, the family was not able to see him until he was at the funeral home. Following through on such problems can prevent them from happening again, Minnier says.
That thinking also led to the creation of Condition H, a rapid response team patients or families can call when they feel they don’t understand fully what’s going on with their care. Minnier helped launch the initiative when she was at Shadyside, and it has since been implemented in hospitals across the country.
Making those kinds of differences matters most to Minnier, who is a firm believer that at the end of the day, nice matters.
“You can be an effective, strong, female leader and still be nice and still show you care, and it has nothing to do with being weak, or whatever the historical stereotypes have been,” she says. “How you treat people comes back to you tenfold.”
Maria Flavin (Carlow University)
Kirstyn Kameg (Robert Morris University)
Suzan Kardong-Edgren (Robert Morris University)
Ann Mitchell (University of Pittsburgh)
Khlood Salman (Duquesne University)
Torrie Snyder (Duquesne University)
Debra Wolf (Chatham University)
Lore Wright (Community College of Allegheny County)
Brian Berry (Excela Health)
Betsy George (UPMC Presbyterian)
Kathleen Godfrey (University of Pittsburgh/Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC)
Peggy Jenkins (St. Clair Hospital)
Cynthia Mueller (Allegheny Health Network West Penn Hospital)
Cynthia Palombo (UPMC Shadyside)
Lisa Rooney (Heritage Valley)
Mary Burgunder (UPMC Home Healthcare)
Susan Hoolahan (UPMC Passavant)
Bobbi-Jo Skurko (UPMC Seneca Place)
Tammi Lining (Allegheny Health Network)
Special Thanks to Our Judges
Mary Ellen Glasgow