Another Catholic healthcare leader, Sister Carol Keehan, CEO of the Catholic Health Association, said that it was Ryan's inclusive nature that led her to stand out in the industry. “There are many, many people who will tell you that Sister Mary Jean was the key person responsible for them moving from modest positions into leadership roles,” Keehan said. Similarly, Gayle Capozzalo, executive vice president and chief strategy officer for Yale New Haven (Conn.) Health and one of two people who nominated her, said that Ryan was a person that other healthcare leaders could and did learn from, and she was active with the influential Institute for Healthcare Improvement and in quality circles in general.
There's no simple way to chart the path of an RN from a small Wisconsin town who eventually became a top CEO authority on hospital quality; in 2002 Ryan led SSM to become the first healthcare organization to earn the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Ryan's career didn't follow the usual routes. But some of the highlights that Ryan identified offer clues as to the type of person she was and is.
One of the stops along the way included a stint on the night shift at a South Carolina hospital when forms of segregation were still in effect, including in the maternity ward where the newborns were cared for. “We weren't breaking rules, but a great story that we have is (about) the nursery,” Ryan said. “Because there wasn't that much to do at night, they would put white babies in with the African-American babies, and then separate them again in the morning. And as far as we know, nobody ever suffered any kind of permanent damage from that,” she added dryly.
Later in her career, as part of her grad school training, Ryan said she had a one-year residency at a for-profit hospital in California that delivered, as she described it, “one of those learnings.” And it was one of those learnings that tell you, “this is what I never want to do,” she said.
Ryan eventually made her way back to SSM, in an administrative role, where she became known for both demanding a lot from her colleagues but also for supporting them and stirring them to achieve. Chris Howard, chief operations officer for SSM Health, speaks warmly of his years working with Ryan: “Sister Mary Jean is inspirational.”
Howard continued: “She's driven. A taskmaster and she will proceed to endeavor on a goal until she achieves it. That's just the absolute truth.
“She is as focused on patient safety and quality as any human being I've ever known,” he said, adding that Ryan remained focused on “ensuring that the rights of all patients, employees, physicians and the community were represented."
Ryan affected others who she worked with in a similar fashion. When queried about what Ryan might have been good at were she not a healthcare administrator, Paula Friedman, chief strategy officer for SSM, said that “being in a role of service I think is very much rooted in her personality.” Friedman notes, though, that Ryan is not a shrinking violet. “You know she's pretty good at telling people what to do. She's inspirational in a loving but very specific way. And so she'd be a leader of some sort.”
Ryan's dual roles, working in healthcare and as a nun in the Catholic Church, were deeply intertwined. Anthony Tersigni, CEO of St. Louis-based Ascension, and the other healthcare leader who nominated Ryan for induction, described her as: “One of those rare inspirational women religious who has left an indelible mark on the world. Quiet but determined, she improved healthcare in the U.S. and influenced healthcare quality throughout the world.”