Tag: President and CEO

Remembering Dr. Joanne Smith




By Judy Carmack Bross



“Dr. Joanne Smith was a transformational and visionary health care leader. Her impact in the field of rehabilitation sciences will be felt globally for many generations to come.  Joanne blended a culture of hope and positivity, integrating scientific research, technology and superior clinical care. I was honored to be her colleague and friend and will miss her always as my soul sister.”–Shirley Ryan, sharing memories of Dr. Smith with Classic Chicago Magazine.

 Pat Ryan, Dr. Smith, Shirley Ryan, and Board Chair Jude Reyes)

Those whose lives shone with vision and dedication leave behind not only the fruits of their accomplishments but also snapshots of greatness when they depart. Dr. Joanne Smith, President, and CEO of the Number One-ranked Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, who died September 6, left us many. We share several snapshots of memories of Dr. Smith who was the driving force behind the transformation of care delivery in the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation, shifting the focus from rehabilitation to the outcome of ability.

Laura Ferrio, Chief Advancement Officer and President of the Keystone Board, was in the room when it happened.

Laura Ferrio

“There she was at a white board before a group of chief medical officers and senior leaders at what was then the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. She wrote the word rehabilitation and asked us all what it meant.  She added what we said and when I said it was a process I remember that she countered by asking: ‘Laura, does anyone come to a hospital for a really great process? They come for outcomes.’  She crossed out the word rehabilitation and wrote in ability.  She noted the great research that was occurring that meant great hope for patients.  She talked of ending the continental divide between doctors, nurses, and therapists and the researchers and innovators whose work can offer so much more hope.”

Ferrio was also there when Dr. Smith introduced the idea of how the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab would visually greet the patients.

“She wanted pops of bright colors, particularly orange which is a color of health and wellness. She wanted the white walls to be warm, the artwork through the building to be beautiful. None of those restful blues and greens found at other medical institutions.  Our patients work three hours a day, five days a week.  Maybe most of all she believed in the words of the large mural on our first floor which says:  ‘The soul moves first’.”

 Jude Reyes, Dr. Smith, Shirley Ryan, and Danny Dolan

Danny Dolan, Vice-Chair of the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, Chair of the Keystone Board, and Chair of the Investment Committee, worked with Dr. Smith since the early 1990s.

“I remember one of the early signs of her ability to think outside the box.  She and Mike Keiser put together a presentation on making day rehabilitation a for-profit business.  Although it wasn’t adopted by the Institute, it showed leadership and vision to look at the medical business in a different way.

“She also worked with Mike Keiser as Board Chair to take the number of Directors down from 50 or 60 to 16 people with the others going onto the Foundation Board.  We could then work more effectively.  She developed a strong partnership with her CFO Ed Case.

“The Shirley Ryan Ability Lab opened in 2017 but we were talking about it since 2011.  She had to convince the board that the new building needed to be built, that we could raise at least $200 million in donations, and that her vision of these brilliant researchers and the doctors should all work on the same floor could happen.  She really had the ability to out-think anyone and get the job done.

 Dr. Smith speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival

“I worked with her for more than half her life and always felt she was very focused and very determined.  But she also knew how to smile, laugh and how to be a real person.”

Connie Coolidge with her husband David

As a leader of the Keystone Board, former President of the Women’s Board, and in multiple other capacities, Connie Coolidge has been key to the institution’s success.  She served on a small planning committee for the new building with Dr. Smith and

described her in this group:

“Joanne was a visionary with an entrepreneurial spirit. She set ambitious goals and was tenacious in reaching them, quickly pivoting around any obstacles she encountered. She led by example, working harder than anyone, fueled by her enthusiasm for the project at hand. She was compassionate as a doctor, quick to share a laugh with patients, and always envisioning a path to improving their care.

“At her recent funeral I was moved by the personal memories shared and by favorite words of Joanne’s:  love first.”

 Dr. Smith with her husband, Rory Repicky, and kids, Claire and Michael Repicky

Dr. Smith came to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for her residency in 1988 and never left. In 1992, she became an attending physician and was subsequently tapped to take on various leadership roles of increasing responsibility. In 2006, a few years after earning her MBA from the University of Chicago, she became President and CEO.  She worked side by side with her predecessor, the legendary visionary and definition of empathy, Dr. Henry Betts. 

 Ribbon cutting at the new building

And a final snapshot memory showing her own empathy:

One of the first outside groups to tour the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab was seated in a large room flooded with sunshine, marveling at Dr. Smith’s description of what she called the world’s leading ability research institute within a hospital.  Her vision–this $550 million, 1.2 million square foot research hospital–was to open the following month on March 25, 2017. Everyone was in awe over what they saw.

All of a sudden, one of the women in the audience collapsed.  Dr, Smith went to the woman to care for her, directing all to step back and an ambulance to be called.  The care that radiated from this sleek and fit woman who was one of the world’s most accomplished leaders was palpable.  She was doctor first, and never left this guest’s side, following up afterward, happy to know that the patient was doing well.




Just recently, the hospital once again was ranked Number One in rehabilitation by U.S. News & World Report for the thirty-first year in a row.