Nancy Carlson: Alumna Leads Faith-Based Hospital With a Mission
Nancy Carlson (Class of ’94, B.S., nursing; M.P.A, ’96) was inspired to enter the nursing profession after watching how medical professionals cared for her firstborn daughter, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
“I think you can find your calling as accidentally as I did,” Carlson says. “I started watching the nurses, talking to them and taking over a lot of her care in the hospital. I realized that I needed to get my nursing degree so that I could have, frankly, more understanding of her care and what was needed.”
However, the chief executive officer at Providence Little Company of Mary Hospital (PLCM) in San Pedro found after ten years of clinical nursing experience, that she could have a larger impact on the care of patients in a leadership position.
“I really liked watching the patient I was directly caring for get better under my watch,” she recalls. “But I realized very quickly that you can make more differences in a management role for a broader number of patients and staff. I got hooked on being able to make a difference for more people and being able to do things the way I felt they should be done.”
Carlson’s eldest daughter died at age 7, on the same day she received her nursing exam results from the Board of Registered Nurses. Nevertheless, she persevered in completing her associate of arts degree in nursing at Santa Monica College and working night shifts at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood while caring for her surviving daughter, who was also diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and is now 33 years old.
“Others would call it fate,” she says. “But in spite of what a lot of people would consider some challenges to be able to focus on school, it didn’t matter. It was clearly something I had an affinity for.”
Carlson says that after her first administrative position at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Marina Del Rey, she realized she needed to upgrade her education along with her professional experience and enrolled at California State University, Dominguez Hills to earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing, and eventually, her master’s degree in public administration.
“I needed to get the added credibility as well as the opportunity to learn that which I had been figuring out myself in a more official way,” she says. “I had a couple of really tremendous professors. Mary Auth (emerita professor of public administration and public policy) is just a really terrific person, very articulate, on a high level. Foraker Smith (professor of public administration and public policy) was in my master’s program. He taught in a style I have never experienced, forcing all of us to think in a very logical, concise fashion. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since. It meant a lot to me to feel like I was meeting his expectations.”
As a mature student who was already in the medical workforce when she enrolled at CSU Dominguez Hills, Carlson appreciated the informal but professional environment of the MPA program.
“In the MPA program, you had people who were already working in the government arenas,” she recalls. “It was a good networking experience. And it was easy to learn at Dominguez because classes were small and it was very collegial.”
Prior to her arrival at Little Company of Mary in 2001, she served in a variety of senior executive roles for several medical centers in Southern California, including Kaiser Permanente and Tenet. She serves on several nonprofit boards, including the Alliance of Catholic Healthcare for California, Private Essential Access Community Hospitals, and the Hospital Association of Southern California. She is also a member of Congresswoman Jane Harman’s “Medicine Cabinet.”
Although Carlson is not a Catholic, she says that she believes in the mission-oriented environment of the church’s hospitals and strives to bring her expertise with for-profit organizations to the more humanitarian faith-based facility.
“Both have something to offer,” she says. [For-profit hospitals] offer more of an eye to efficiency, which I think was good experience for me to bring back into the faith-based [organizations]. You have to maintain your focus on your core business which is really that of improving the health of your community.”
Under Carlson’s direction, PLCM was given the Thomson Reuters 100 Top Hospitals Performance Improvement Leader Award in 2006 and this year received certification as the first Advanced Primary Stroke Center in the South Bay.
Carlson says that regardless of religious affiliation, a career in the health care field, particularly nursing, requires “a passion for caring for people and... a strong work ethic.”
“You can’t go into nursing unless there’s a certain level of selflessness about you,” she says. “It’s not an easy job, but there’s nothing more rewarding. You have to go in and want to be a healer.”
- Joanie Harmon