The following piece is an excerpt of a 2019 presentation May Chin, MGH School of Nursing alumna, made to graduating MGH Institute nursing students.

To better understand the innovation that’s happened at MGH, let’s travel back about 60 years, when I started nursing school, to understand the state of education then. From 1950 through the 1970s, there was a major shift in nursing education from hospital-based apprenticeships into a profession that required academic education together with practical experience. Ruth Sleeper was a leader in innovative health care and oversaw this transformation while she was the director of both the MGH School of Nursing and the hospital’s Nursing Services.

Ms. Sleeper conducted a study that paved the way to reorganize the MGH School of Nursing and its curriculum. She highlighted the fact that students provided approximately 85% of the nursing care at MGH and 100% of nursing care in the outpatient department. Ms. Sleeper’s report led to the hospital hiring 90 new graduates to care for patients, thus enabling students to have more class time.

Ruth Sleeper was an inspirational role model, always taking time to teach and talk with students. She urged us to focus on providing patient-centered care based on scientific principles. And she instilled in us the need to keep studying and learning after graduation, to remain current in nursing and clinical practice.

To quote Ms. Sleeper, “Always, always more to see, more to learn, more to do . . . to improve both care and cure.”

She was a national leader in moving nursing education to a broader academic-based curriculum and worked diligently for MGH to become a degree-granting institution. Her efforts, along with those of Dr. John Knowles and Dr. Charles Sanders, led to the establishment of the MGH Institute of Health Professions in 1977. Moreover, she was respected for her leadership and management abilities. She was the first woman and the first nurse at MGH to be “invited” to be a member of the hospital’s executive team. 

To demonstrate how far we (nurses) have come over the last 60 years, I’d like to share with you some personal and professional experiences.

I was the youngest child and only daughter of immigrant parents from China. The Chinese Exclusion Act precluded my parents from owning property, so we lived in the back of a laundry store until I was 12. My father told me that I could be a secretary or a hairdresser, not a nurse. His rationale was that girls marry, have babies, stay home, and will never have a chance to make it on our own. My mother, a feminist long before her time, told me to be quiet, that we would find a way. I persisted, and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity MGH gave me to become a professional nurse.

As students we were beneficiaries of Ms. Sleeper’s commitment to broader preparation in the liberal arts and humanities. During our senior year, she brought in the pioneers of group dynamics and team work, led by Bennis, Benne, & Chin from Boston University. Over the semester, we learned to critique roles we played in groups and understand the difference between leaders and managers. 

Ms. Sleeper believed that “learning was a lifelong process.” Under her leadership in 1958, MGH was one of the first hospitals to offer tuition reimbursement for nurses to continue baccalaureate and graduate education.

In spite of working full-time on White 7 as a new grad and rotating all three shifts in a given week, I didn’t hesitate to take advantage of this new employee benefit.  Twenty years after graduating from the SON, I went on to earn a Master’s in Nursing Administration, and then at 50 years of age, I earned an MBA – all thanks to Ms. Sleeper’s mantra for the need for continued learning. 

Fresh out of receiving my MBA in 1987, I had the good fortune to be the administrative director of ambulatory services, responsible for operations including nursing, at a well-known cancer center. It was clear when I started my position that an integrated patient-centered scheduling system was a priority. To justify an upgrade to our systems, I led a study working with finance, information technology, nurses, and physician leaders to gather data manually. The findings resulted in expansion of infusion and exam space, along with lab and pharmacy systems that were integrated into an individual patient’s schedule, enabling appropriate sequencing of tests prior to treatment.

At my 50th reunion I was intrigued to hear IHP nursing students describe how the Institute was helping them reach their goal of becoming a professional nurse. I arranged for a tour to learn about the Institute’s programs. It became clear to me that the vision and values we learned back in the ’50s from Ruth Sleeper were alive and well at the Institute.