Taking The Lead
Suburban Hospital’s president has her biggest role yet
Photo by Lisa Helfert
Jacky Schultz worked her way through nursing school by singing on Saturday nights at Eddie’s Horseshoe Bar and Grill in Queens. She took the subway from Manhattan, performed for four hours and made $15 plus tips. Her favorite musical was Funny Girl, based on vaudeville star Fanny Brice, and one notable song from that show is “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” One verse goes:
Don’t tell me not to fly—
I’ve simply got to.
If someone takes a spill,
It’s me and not you.
Who told you you’re allowed
To rain on my parade!
Today, Schultz, 67, is the president of Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. Many people have told her not to fly, and she’s taken plenty of spills. But no one has rained on her parade.
She attended three colleges before earning a degree. She’s been fired twice. She’s faced discrimination as a Jew, a woman and a nurse. But overcoming those obstacles has given her the resilience and resources to deal with a rapidly changing medical environment that aims to cut costs by keeping people out of hospitals, not in them.
“Hospitals are great places because you have a lot of concentrated resources, but you should encounter a hospital only when you absolutely need it,” she tells me. “Right now we are focused on disease and illness, but really the focus for health care has to be prevention and wellness, and that’s a rather new focus for us. Can we think beyond the walls of the hospital? Because we’re going to have to.”
Schultz’s father was a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who became a chemist and settled his young family in the New Jersey suburb of New Providence. “It was a typical Norman Rockwell kind of town,” she says, but after one high school show, the cast party was held at a country club that barred Jews. “I was 15 or 16, and when I found out I didn’t go,” she recalls. “I think it had an influence on me.”
She identified with Fanny Brice, the daughter of Jewish immigrants who became a huge star. And at her first two colleges, Rutgers and New York University, she majored in music and yearned for a stage career. But after many auditions, and no parts, she began to think, “What if that ‘be a star’ thing just doesn’t work out, which was highly probable, and I knew it.”
Jacky’s father suggested nursing school, and transferring to Cornell was “the best decision of my life,” she says. But the transition was not easy. When told to give an injection for the first time, she panicked and said, “Are you kidding me?”
“It was a challenge, it was intimidating, but it was incredibly rewarding,” she says of her new career. “You get to serve people, you’re learning something completely new, and there’s something about the camaraderie on a [hospital] floor, doctors and nurses and technicians, that’s very engaging and draws you in. You’re part of something, and I really liked it.”
Her first job was at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and she recalls a 16-year-old patient who was terminally ill: “We were talking every night and she said to me, ‘Jacky, I was always a good girl, I did things right, why is this happening to me?’ I was 24 years old and I didn’t have an answer to that.”
She chokes up telling the story: “Even now you could see it makes me very emotional. It’s the school of real life. You get your perspective on what’s important and what’s not.”
Jacky married Harvey Schultz, had two children, moved back to New Jersey and cycled through several nursing jobs. At some point she “got bit by the management bug,” and when I ask why, she replies: “I have no idea. I just looked around at these people running floors and I thought, I want to do that.”
She applied for a job as a hospital vice president but was told, “You’re not much of a leader.” Schultz, who was “initially devastated” by the rejection, learned an important lesson. “It was about confidence. I had to be more sure of myself,” she says.
When her hospital in Newark closed for financial reasons in 2005, she moved here to become chief nurse at Suburban. Four years later, the hospital joined the Johns Hopkins system and eventually the presidency came open. “I applied for the job and didn’t get it,” she admits.
Schultz says she doesn’t know why she didn’t get the job. “It got down to three finalists, myself and two physicians, and right away I was like ‘Uh-oh, I probably won’t be completing medical school by the time this happens,’ ” she says.
She actually faced two prejudices, she says, and one was gender. Johns Hopkins did not have a great record of female leadership—the hospital recently named its first woman president in 125 years and “125 years is a long time,” cracks Schultz. “Then there’s the nursing part,” she adds. “What do nurses know about business? They’re nurturing, loving, but people don’t see that as the image of the decisive leader who’s going to be able to make quick decisions.”
But the male doctor who got the job did not stay long, and after a year as interim president, Schultz was named to the permanent post last year. She believes her nursing background is a big plus, because “nursing is [a] team sport” and so is running a hospital—one reason she lives only 10 minutes away in Rockville. That camaraderie she first felt early in her career, that sense of being “part of something” important and worthwhile, is at the core of her leadership style.
She doesn’t sing much anymore, but she’s promised to perform for her staff if they reach certain goals and maybe she’ll include these lyrics from “Don’t Rain on My Parade”:
I gotta fly once
I gotta try once
Only can die once, right, sir?
Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to email@example.com.