The heart of health care The heart of health care The heart of health care

Through public health crisis, nursing leader Pam Cipriano, ’81, has delivered doses of hope and advocacy. The 2022 Alumna Summa Laude Dignata award recognizes her service.

By Chris Talbott | June 2022 issue

Pamela Cipriano learned a very important lesson while responding to the first international crisis of her public service career. She was head of the American Nurses Association in 2015 when Ebola spread around the world, setting off what we thought of as an international crisis at the time. Little was known about the highly contagious Ebola or the conditions under which it spread out of hot spots in West Africa. Questions moved faster than the virus itself, and public-health professionals had few concrete answers for reporters.

“What was interesting for me is that the role that actually evolved for me as president of the American Nurses Association was to provide a voice of calm and reason,” Cipriano, ’81, says. She became an expert source for national and international media by providing insight about infection control and protecting health-care workers.

Fast forward a half-decade and Cipriano again found herself the eye of a storm as COVID-19 spread around the world, then spread again and again in waves that sent us all into hiding and killed more than 1 million people nationwide over a two-year period. Now as president of the International Council of Nurses, a professional organization that represents the world’s 28 million registered nurses, she stepped into the storm again and applied what she learned during Ebola.

This time, though, the issues were not just supersized, but politicized, with disinformation and misinformation supplanting a lack of information. It turns out those were just a few of the issues.

“One of the early things you’ll remember was health-care workers really crying out for protective equipment,” Cipriano says. “They were being made to reuse equipment that wasn’t supposed to be reused, and our supply chains were woefully behind. We didn’t even know what we needed initially. So the fear was multiplied within the health-care setting. Not only were health-care workers taking care of people they couldn’t save, but they were feeling like they were vulnerable, and they were then feeling like they couldn’t go home to their families.”

For her fierce advocacy for her colleagues and as a voice of reason in unreasonable times, Cipriano is this year’s Alumna Summa Laude Dignata, the highest honor bestowed upon a UW graduate by the University and the UW Alumni Association.

She thinks deeply about the issues, and she thinks about how to move the profession forward.

Marla Weston, CEO, American Nurses Association

“Many UW graduates rise to local visibility either in professional, philanthropic or other realms,” says Azita Emami, executive dean of the UW School of Nursing. “Some do so regionally, and a few achieve national recognition. A very few do what Pam Cipriano has done and achieve global stature, most recently as president of the International Council of Nurses, while simultaneously having both professional visibility and educational impact as dean of the University of Virginia School of Nursing, one of the nation’s leading nursing schools. Pam’s efforts have been a spark of hope for countless nurses in many countries.”

Cipriano joins a long list of illustrious ASLD recipients that includes Nobel Prize winners, public policy makers and researchers working on some of the biggest scientific and social questions of our time.

Few have faced the monumental global challenges Cipriano has wrestled with over the past decade. “One of the things that I would say is that she is a leader,” says Marla Weston, the CEO of the American Nurses Association during Cipriano’s presidency. “She thinks deeply about the issues, and she thinks about how to move the profession forward. It’s very easy to wax eloquently about what’s wrong. But it’s a special kind of leader who thinks about how to move, in this case, the profession or the organization or health care forward.”

Even as the pandemic seemed to abate, Cipriano was presented with another global challenge that offered no easy answers or options: the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This time it was nurses deliberately put in the crosshairs and other horrors as the Russians bombed hospitals, the injured overwhelmed those left standing, and the refugee crisis climbed into the millions. The first level of concern is the nurses who are sleeping in the basements of hospitals as bombs fall around them. Beyond that, the complexity of the situation is hard to fathom. Cipriano has spearheaded International Council of Nurses fundraising and public relations efforts to call attention to the atrocities, some of which have been deemed war crimes.

She’s one of those amazing people that you meet once in a while in your life that are truly great

Tim Brigham, CEO, Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education

“We are in touch with the nurses in Ukraine,” Cipriano says. “We will help tell their story. The refugee communities in the surrounding countries will have stories that will be unbelievable for years to come. And we’re already worried about human trafficking concerns that we’re hearing about. Borders are overwhelmed with the number of people going across.”

A 1981 graduate of the rigorous UW School of Nursing’s Master of Science program, Cipriano has led a varied educational and professional path. Currently the dean of the University of Virginia School of Nursing, where she’s the Sadie Heath Cabaniss professor of nursing, she earned her doctorate at the University of Utah after her time in Seattle. She then embarked on a remarkable run of professional leadership roles, including nurse manager at LDS Hospital Intermountain Health Care in Utah, director of Surgery-Trauma Services at the Medical University of South Carolina, chief nursing and chief clinical officer for the University of Virginia Health System and interim chief operating officer at Wake Forest Baptist Health.

Her many accomplishments include being Distinguished Nurse Scholar-in-Residence at the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) and the inaugural editor-in-chief of American Nurse Today. She has earned a Fellowship Ad Eundem at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the Health Care Leader Award at the American Academy of Nursing.

Tim Brigham, chief of staff and chief education officer at the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, has worked with Cipriano at the National Academy of Medicine. He says leadership comes naturally for Cipriano because “it’s woven into her DNA.”

“She gains your respect and admiration by her authenticity and her integrity,” says Brigham, who co-chairs a Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience working group with Cipriano. “The things that made her a COO, made her a dean, made her everything that she does is what she brings to the table. So she’s one of those amazing people that you meet once in a while in your life that are truly great.”

Barring another international crisis, Cipriano hopes to make her work with the Academy a priority. The pandemic has further exposed and exacerbated iniquities in the health-care profession. Significant improvement in working conditions, pay and mental-health support for nurses are among the many goals.

“I’ve continued to be really dedicated to trying to raise the level of visibility and influence of nurses because we are so overlooked in the bigger scheme of things,” Cipriano says. “But I guess I will continue to be optimistic that nurses will continue to play a greater and greater role in designing, improving and leading health care, not just in our country but around the world. It has been difficult having been in nursing now many, many years to see nurses be overlooked. Nurses are a phenomenal source of information, expertise, problem-solving ability, tenacity and, as we’ve seen in the last several years, extraordinary dedication to do whatever it takes in any kind of health-care emergency.”