JoAnn Birdzell, the chief executive officer of St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago, said she has had three lives in health care as a nurse and an administrator. That passion for health care began when she was a child.
Born in the small Indiana town of Medaryville, Birdzell experienced the death of her father when she was 10 years old.
“It was a major wake-up call to me. He was a smoker,” she said of the loss that led her both to her calling as a nurse and to her strong work ethic.
Starting when she was 10, Birdzell earned money by baby-sitting and cleaning houses. Just a few years later she went to work at a Medaryville grocery store, an employment that lasted for six years.
“I worked seven days a week,” Birdzell said. “I’d rather work than eat. I saved enough money to go to nursing school.”
Her decision to become a nurse also was influenced by the care needed by her grandmother who lived with the family. Birdzell earned her bachelor's degree in nursing from Indiana University and her master of science in nursing at the University of Chicago.
Leading by example
Birdzell began her health-care career as a nurse, working her way up into leadership roles and striving to be a mentor and role model for other women.
“Female leaders who take on professional leadership positions have to focus on hard work, have a passion for what they do and develop and build support teams who have the same drive," Birdzell said. "This team should be committed and professional and have common goals with a strategy and mission to create a better world."
Dave Ryan, Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce executive director, said Birdzell has never lacked for passion or drive.
She has long been a stalwart advocate for the health care industry and is well-deserving of her 2016 induction into The Times Business & Industry Hall of Fame, Ryan said.
"I’m excited to see her nominated and chosen for this honor,” Ryan said.
“JoAnn is a CEO, a boss who leads by example and is not afraid to get into the trenches,” Ryan said. "She’s really a hands-on person."
He cited an example when a water main broke during construction at St. Catherine Hospital, leaving it without running water. Birdzell jumped right in, assembled health workers, engineers and the rest and "got that problem solved."
Paula Swenson, chief nursing officer at St. Catherine Hospital, said it was the same story during the recent blizzard of 2016. Hearing the forecast, Birdzell packed an overnight bag before heading to the hospital for work.
That night, after many went home, Birdzell distributed water and sandwiches to staff and made the rounds to make sure the patients had everything they needed. She remained at the helm until noon the next day.
"She talks about people who have a missionary-like zeal, and she personifies that," Swenson said. "She is a servant leader in my mind."
As a member of the Indiana Hospital Association board, Birdzell also worked with many other Hoosier hospitals for several years to promote Medicaid expansion for Indiana. That finally happened last year and further provisions have leveled the playing field for hospitals such as St. Catherine that care for a disproportionate share of Medicaid patients.
Climbing the ladder
Though trained as a nurse, Birdzell's talents were noticed by higher-ups early on, and she found herself at a young age thrust into the role of administrator.
In the mid-1970s, Birdzell's career took a major turn when she joined Methodist Hospital in Gary at the invitation of administrator Everett Johnson.
“I was tasked with starting an HMO (health maintenance organization) for the steel companies,” she recalled. “The union thought it was second-class medicine.”
However, the concept was ultimately accepted, helping to contain costs while still providing high-quality health care.
Creating solutions continued to be the theme of her life, Birdzell said, who held various leadership positions at hospitals that were founded by the Poor Handmaidens of Jesus Christ/Ancilla Domini Sisters.
Another “life” in health care took Birdzell to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Chicago in the 1990s where she was asked to help keep this longtime institution open. Founded by the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ/Ancilla Domini Sisters in 1887 to care for German immigrants, St. Elizabeth seemed to face the same fate as other hospitals in the city that had closed.
“I went there with a vengeance to St. Elizabeth’s and put a team together,” Birdzell said.
Caught in a neighborhood between two rival gangs, St. Elizabeth served a wide variety of patients, she said, adding that expanding services rather than closing the facility seemed the best solution.
In 1995, she was named senior vice president of operations for Ancilla Systems, the hospital's parent company. In that position, Birdzell oversaw seven hospitals in Indiana and Illinois. One of those hospitals was East Chicago’s St. Catherine Hospital.
The turnaround at St. Elizabeth Hospital worked and in 2001, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ transferred their sponsorship of St. Elizabeth Hospital to the Resurrection Health Care System.
St. Catherine hospital meanwhile had become a Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH), serving a larger number of indigent patients with no insurance coverage by 2000. The hospital was founded in 1928 by a partnership between the Manufacturers Association of East Chicago and the Poor Handmaidens of Jesus Christ/Ancilla Domini Sisters.
Power breakfast seals the deal
As she worked on the situation at St. Catherine, Birdzell said she thought more could be done to make St. Catherine Hospital viable by partnering with other area hospitals.
So she rang up Donald Powers, one of the founders of Munster's Community Hospital and the longtime CEO of its parent company. She proposed a partnership between her hospital and his. Then they closed the deal.
“I met him at 7 a.m. in Briar Ridge Country Club for oatmeal," she said. "He listened and ate. ‘Yeah, that sounds good’, he told me.”
A later conversation between Powers and Birdzell involved adding St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart to the partnership.
In 2001, St. Catherine Hospital became a member of the Community Healthcare System, ending the involvement of the Ancilla Domini Sisters although still maintaining its Catholic traditions. The hospital continues to uphold its founding commitments to the community, providing compassionate care to all who come through its doors, Birdzell said.
Known as a tireless advocate for the hospital and its patients, Birdzell also helped start Nazareth Home in East Chicago in 1993 at the invitation of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.
Nazareth Home originally was established to help babies born with AIDS as a foster care facility, Birdzell said. Today, it serves a wide variety of medically compromised infants and children who are faced with extraordinary challenges in life.
In addition to providing medical care and a nurturing environment, Nazareth Home works with parents on the challenges they face so children can be reunited with their families, she said.
Birdzell said she’s learned many lessons about leadership throughout her career and credits one of her favorite female leaders — former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher — with showing the world the importance of good leadership.
“One of my favorite quotes of hers regarding leadership is, ‘I do not know anyone who has got to the top without hard work. That is the recipe. It will not always get you to the top, but should get you pretty near,’ ” Birdzell said.