Ruth Williams was the first person to come to my mind when I was asked to reflect on Black history at Rush. I met her in the mid-80s, when I was a Rush University College of Nursing student. Ruth was a unit director and one of the first Black nurses to have that position at Rush. She was also one of the only people in a leadership role who looked like me. Seeing her in that role made me proud.
Leadership wasn’t where Ruth started. She joined what was then Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in 1960 as a clerk in pediatrics, earning $2 an hour. Over 30 years, Ruth worked full-time, raised two children as a single mother, became a licensed practical nurse, and earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing and master’s degree in nursing administration.
I vividly remember that Ruth ran a tight ship. She was well-respected by her peers, staff and physicians. Excellent care of the patients was always her top priority.
There’s a story about Ruth in the Rush archives that reminds me so much of our current nursing shared governance model. She and her fellow nurses thought the patient units were too noisy because of loudspeaker announcements — sometimes as many as ten pages per hour. The noise disrupted the patients’ rest and healing.
Ruth got together with her colleagues to write down their ideal patient care conditions on note cards. Then they began to write down solutions, like wearing small battery-powered microphones on their lapels to speak to each other, and using computers instead of paper to efficiently keep records. She made collaboration and problem-solving easy.
She was also a huge believer in education. Ruth helped broaden Rush’s tuition reimbursement program to benefit more employees, regardless of their previous education or background. She was also instrumental in the design of a Rush home health care system, so patients got the care they needed from doctor’s office to hospital to home.
Ruth was a trailblazer in so many ways. In recognition of her many accomplishments and contributions, Rush University Medical Center honored her with the James Campbell Award — the highest honor a Medical Center employee can receive — in 1991.
Years after Ruth left Rush, I happened to recognize her one Sunday sitting in a pew at my church. I went over to her and reintroduced myself. I told her I now was Rush’s chief nursing officer — and that I might not have been able to achieve this role if it wasn’t for her having paved the way.
Angelique L. Richard, PhD, RN, CENP, is the chief nursing officer of Rush University Medical Center and Rush University System for Health and senior vice president of hospital operations of Rush University Medical Center.