Tag: Shirley Ryan AbilityLab

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. 


Picture of Health

Dr. Joanne Smith Helps Usher in a New Era of Patient Care at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab




By David A. F. Sweet



Across seven decades, the former Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago was renowned for breakthroughs, such as mind-controlled bionics. Without fail, year after year, U.S. News & World Report named it the best rehabilitation hospital in the United States.

So why did the non-profit’s CEO and president, Dr. Joanne Smith, propose a number of years ago to build a completely different type of hospital — and change the iconic name?


“This unique model enables patients to have 24/7 access to the brightest minds, the latest research and the best opportunity for recovery,” says Dr. Joanne Smith of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab.

“We learned from our patients that they don’t care about the process of rehabilitation; they care about outcomes,” said Smith, who’s now in charge of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, a $550 million facility that opened in 2017 in Chicago. “More than 10 years ago, I started dreaming of this amazing hospital that was a crucible for better, faster patient outcomes. They want to live their best, happiest, and most independent lives. This insight has driven my career; it is my calling.

“When I suggested taking a venerable name and brand and turning it on its head, people looked at me like I’d been working too hard. I always had confidence that it would not only work, but it would usher in a new way to provide healthcare, a new age.”

The 26-story, 1.2-million-square-foot space — named after philanthropist Shirley Ryan, who with her husband Pat made a large donation to the hospital in 2016 — is revolutionary. Boundaries between medicine and science have been removed, as physicians, nurses, therapists, technologists, and others work together in the same space, surrounding patients and applying research in real-time.


Shirley Ryan (middle) and Pat Ryan (left) celebrate the opening of the new hospital with Dr. Joanne Smith in 2017.

“This unique model enables patients to have 24/7 access to the brightest minds, the latest research and the best opportunity for recovery,” explained Dr. Smith, who started at the Rehabilitation Institute as a physician in 1992. “On average, it takes approximately 17 years to turn a new discovery into patient benefit and 86 percent of scientific discoveries never even make it out of the lab. The goal of Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is to fundamentally change the game, to make that process happen much faster with increasingly better results.”

Shirley Ryan AbilityLab deals with spinal cord and brain injuries, stroke recovery, and more. Patients have included those who were thrown from the truck during a tractor-trailer collision, breaking vertebrae and many ribs; another who mysteriously became paralyzed while working in an office; many who have battled multiple sclerosis. Thanks to its army of more than 2,000 clinicians, scientists, and staff, Shirley Ryan AbilityLab serves more than 50,000 patients a year.

And those patients aren’t the only ones who benefit from the institution’s breakthroughs. Noted Dr. Smith, “The advances we make and the solutions we discover help everyone in the world who faces such challenges. Because we serve humanity, we have long championed collaboration and education, and we share everything we learn and create.”


The Shirley Ryan AbilityLab serves more than 50,000 patients a year.

Danny Dolan, a member of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab board of directors, knows first-hand the importance of the hospital’s care. When it was still known as the Rehabilitation Institute, Danny’s young son John needed its services from birth, when he was paralyzed from the neck down. He passed away at a young age, and Danny responded by creating the John Dolan Golf Challenge, which raised more than $4 million for the Rehabilitation Institute over 20 years.

Dolan has known Dr. Smith practically from her first day at the Rehabilitation Institute. He was impressed in the 1990s when she crafted a vision for a day rehabilitation business, as well as when she took over as CEO and president in 2006 and overcame a perilous financial situation.

“She’s extremely smart,” Dolan said. “Nowhere in the world had her vision been done before. There was some strife, as it was a leap of faith. But her ability to execute her vision with her leadership team has set her apart.”

One of nine children in Detroit, Dr. Smith grew up in a family and a faith that emphasized service to others. Combined with her passion for science and art (which emphasizes creative thinking), she is not wholly surprised she has ended up in the role she has, given the requirements of her position.


“Helping our patients achieve outcomes no one thought possible is thrilling,” Dr. Smith says.

During medical school at Michigan State, she was profoundly influenced by a 13-year-old girl she met who had spina bifida. Her legs didn’t work, so the surgeons removed them. Later she was outfitted with wooden prosthetic legs attached to a rigid plastic bucket into which she’d sit her pelvis.

“Once in the bucket, strapped to the wheelchair, this happy teen became a sad one, one who couldn’t function the way she wanted to,” Dr. Smith recalled. “In an effort to fix her appearance and fit with society’s expectations, she was made less able and independent … and importantly, less happy. Ever since, I’ve lent my professional shoulder to the shifting — and growing — momentum of the movement against ‘dis-abling’ people.”

Patients at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab motivate her every day. Said she,Helping our patients achieve outcomes no one thought possible is thrilling. Watching our patients fight to get better and then hitting it out of the park is the greatest blessing of my career.”


Unsung Gems columnist David A. F. Sweet can be followed on Twitter @davidafsweet. E-mail him at dafsweet@aol.com.