The University of Vermont Medical Center is proud to welcome Eileen Whalen, M.H.A., R.N., as its new president and chief operating officer effective immediately. Get to know Eileen in this interview.
A: I was born and raised in Washington, DC – I’m one of 10 children, (six girls and four boys) and that definitely informed my upbringing! We were raised in an Irish Catholic environment – it was a time when the neighborhood, the church, the community center were our social network. And having a lot of kids wasn’t uncommon. We belonged to the 7-Up club, where you had to have 7 or more kids to belong. But it was great growing up in a big family. I never lacked for a playmate. We lived in a neighborhood that was connected by alleys, so we would run back and forth. We always had our own baseball and football team – we were the Whalens, and we’d play other large families in the neighborhood, like the Sullivans.
Q: How did you end up becoming a nurse?
A: My mom said to me, “I wanted to be a nurse, and then 10 kids came along . . . so it will be you.” Those were the days when women were encouraged to be a schoolteacher, a secretary or a nurse. That said, my parents in their own way empowered us to believe we could be whatever we wanted to be. My dad’s mother had died in childbirth with the last child, he and his 11 siblings really raised each other – and my aunts were really formidable in my father’s life. So he felt very strongly that any one of us girls could make our way in the world. All of my sisters are successful professionals in various fields.
Q: What was it that drew you to trauma nursing?
A: When I was growing up, my mother used to say, “unless someone’s bleeding, don’t bring ‘em in the door.” Somehow I was always the one who dragged ‘em all in. That might have been the beginning of it right there. After nursing school, I had the opportunity to go to Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, where Dr. Debakey led a world renowned cardiac program with a 55-bed ICU unit. So I went straight from my nursing education into a very intensive critical care program. It was a wonderful experience, but I remember visiting my parents and watching a car accident on the news. I watched the helicopter swooping in, picking up the patient and taking him to the nearest shock trauma unit, which happened to be the Maryland Shock Trauma Unit in Baltimore and I turned to my dad and said, “that’s what I want to do.” Within a month I moved home and started a career in trauma nursing.
Q: What was it exactly about trauma nursing that appealed to you? Some people talk about the adrenaline rush of taking care of patients in those kinds of situations.
A: It was partly that, but really what I love to see is how you take a body that has been subjected to a traumatic force, and by working as a team and applying everything from diagnostics to surgery to phenomenal nursing care, you bring that person back. I was fascinated by the physiology of shock and trauma. I also really liked the way, working in that environment, you very quickly learn how to size up a situation and make a decision. That has informed my leadership style as well.
Over the years, my interest in trauma has come from different perspectives. At one point in my career, I was developing trauma systems in health care organizations around the country. And my husband and I were in a horrible accident on our ranch in which we were trauma patients ourselves. I am so grateful to the trauma team who literally saved our lives. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a critically injured patient return home to work and to family. It’s so cool.
Q: Can you talk a bit about your top priorities for your first six months on the job?
A: First, to understand the culture of the organization and of the community, and that’s done best by listening and immersing myself. I’ve started rounding in the clinical areas, making sure I have time to hear people’s thoughts and understand our patient population. Second, I really want to support the patient family centered care culture change in our organization. This is such an important part of our future, and I’ve already started framing things in terms of this effort.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your husband, Robert?
A: We’ve been married 34 years. A friend of ours working with me at the Shock Trauma Unit in Maryland said he had a friend who was developing trauma systems in community hospitals in Orange County, CA who wanted to see what it was like in our trauma unit. My friend said, “Eileen, this guy is an attorney, a trauma surgeon, and he lives on the beach in Orange County.” I, being a flippant 26-year-old, said, “Well, shoot if he’s all those things, then I’ll marry him tomorrow.” We were married within 3 months and I quickly realized two out of three of these statements were true!
Q: Wow, you’re both decisive! Any kids?
A: We are very proud of our son Alex, who with his wife Ashley is expecting our first granddaughter in April. She’s a labor and delivery nurse, and he’s a junior high teacher and a high school football coach. We also have a second son who, as he likes to say, “we chose” versus the one we gave birth to! Ryan was a grade school friend of Alex’s, and he’s been with us since the boys were in high school. He is has completed a stint with the Marines and is currently applying to nursing school.
Q: Any parting thoughts?
A: Everyone has been so welcoming. I’ve found Vermonters to be incredibly gracious and warm, very open to new experiences and new leadership, both here at the hospital and in the community. We’re very grateful for the reception we’ve received, and we’re excited to be here.