The Journey from Nursing to COO of John Dempsey Hospital

Opportunities in the nursing field are expansive. We recently spoke with Caryl Ryan, RN, Chief Operating Officer for UConn John Dempsey Hospital and Chief Nursing Officer and Vice President for Quality and Patient Care Services about her path in nursing.

Caryl Ryan MS, BSN, RN is the vice president of quality and patient care services, the chief nursing officer, and chief operating officer of UConn John Dempsey Hospital at UConn Health. May 19, 2022 (Tina Encarnacion/UConn Health)

Having spent her summers working at camps while in high school and college, Caryl Ryan, RN, Chief Operating Officer for UConn John Dempsey Hospital, Chief Nursing Officer and Vice President for Quality and Patient Care Services, knew she wanted to be a nurse. While she initially thought she would work in pediatrics, it turned out that was only a small part of her nursing experience.

A graduate of Villanova University with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Ryan spent the beginning of her career in Philadelphia at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital where she worked over a four year period initially in the neurocritical care unit specializing in spinal cord injury as the unit was a designated spinal cord injury center where Ryan was part of the spinal cord injury retrieval team.  It was here she had her first managerial experience and training as a nursing care coordinator in a neurosensory unit caring for ENT, orthopedic, neurology, and neurosurgical patients.

Upon getting married, Ryan transferred to Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine for about three years where she worked in a 30-bed special care trauma unit.

When she returned to Connecticut in 1985, she joined UConn Health as an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) staff nurse until she took on the assistant nurse manager job in early 2002. In 2007, she accepted a nurse manager job on Medicine 4 and developed a medical step-down unit and an additional medical overflow unit which was on Medicine 3.

“I remember when I interviewed for the job on Med 4, I asked the staff interviewing me what they wanted in a leader and they said, ‘We want someone dedicated to helping us become stronger, we don’t want to be the medical unit no one wants to work on,’” recalls Ryan.  In her years of managing and growing the unit to a new floor, the staff was educated and trained to care for a medically complex medicine patient.  The entire staff stepped up to the challenge to become the unit many staff wanted to work in.

“During my first few months as the medicine 4 manager, I was very concerned about the high patient acuity coupled with a higher nurse/patient ratios,” says Ryan.  At that time, there were three to four nurses on the night shift for 29 patients. Today, that number would be six to seven nurses dependent on the patient acuity because at that time the unit also housed an 8 bed medical stepdown unit.   “We worked hard to increase the staffing ratios in an effort to improve patient outcomes and decrease safety events,” says Ryan.

Ryan still reflects on that piece of her life and says “Wow, being the manager of Medicine 4 was one of the most rewarding management jobs I’ve ever had because of the staff’s dedication to improve their clinical skills and nursing practice related to the care of their patients.”  While the manager of the medicine units, Ryan also completed her Master of Science in Nursing Leadership in Healthcare Systems from Regis University.

In 2013 the Berkley Research Group (BRG), a healthcare consulting firm, came to UConn Health, Ryan was pulled from her regular duties to do workforce assessment, productivity and the development of nursing staffing grids. Having the workforce knowledge as part of her experience gave her a stronger fiscal and budget outlook.

“Participating in the Berkeley Research Group was an unbelievable experience,” says Ryan. “I think that it really has come to benefit me in the roles that I have served.”

Following her time with BRG, she became nursing director of the medical surgical units, workforce, advance practice staff, and oncology services including the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center. She later became the senior director and added in the critical care areas of the Intensive Care Unit and the Emergency Department.

In addition to her experience with BRG, she was the chair of the board of education in her town for about ten years which gave her the first exposure to labor unions, and the knowledge learned in that volunteer job proved very beneficial as she grew in her administrative role.

In November of 2019, she became Interim Chief Nursing Officer and Vice President for Quality and Patient Care Services which became permanent that August.  Shortly after taking on the interim role in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic came to the United States.  Ryan’s critical care background and the workforce participation were instrumental in preparing her for the challenges of a pandemic.

“When I look at the past two and half years, we wouldn’t be half as successful if we didn’t have such great collaboration within our leadership teams, including our faculty leadership,” says Ryan.  “It took everyone’s tremendous efforts to be successful through this pandemic. It’s now a rapidly changing world with challenges that didn’t exist before the pandemic, we need to maintain and sustain workforce wellness and engagement; get back to the fundamentals of our practice; continue to grow our programs, and move forward remembering that we are all here to care for our patients.”

Ryan continues to serve on the quality and safety committee for the Connecticut Hospital Association (CHA) along with the nurse executive team and is also one of the co-chairs of the CHA safer hospital initiative work group program.

When Dr. Andy Agwunobi became interim President of the University of Connecticut in addition to his role as CEO of UConn Health, Ryan was named interim Chief Operating Officer for UConn John Dempsey Hospital with permanency this past February when Interim UConn Health CEO Dr. Bruce T. Liang appointed her.

“The COO role is a broader expansion of the oversight and responsibility I perform as CNO,” says Ryan.  “It is a privilege and honor to serve in both roles and I feel very fortunate to work with the many outstanding faculty and staff that work tirelessly every day in an effort to improve the care we deliver to our patients.”

“I have always strived for clinical excellence within my leadership roles and nursing practice. Improved patient outcomes are built on critical thinking and a strong clinical knowledge and skill base,” says Ryan.  “Patient Safety is a priority for me and our institution has worked very hard to identify and correct all processes that may have contributed to any adverse events.”

Ryan tells her leadership team that listening is a fundamental tool that engages staff and makes them feel heard. She also believes that credibility is an important characteristic within one’s leadership. “I have never asked my staff to do anything that I would not do,” states Ryan, “maintaining credibility is very important to me.”

“I have always strived to be a being a leader who is authentic and can have the hard, crucial conversations because there are many difficult and challenging conversations to be had,” says Ryan. The more conversations that take place at that level the easier those discussions eventually become.

There is a part of Ryan that is always “a nurse” no matter what her role is. In times of great challenge, her place of comfort is out on the units talking to patients and staff, which brings her back to why she does what she does.

“I really love my job and I’m doing what I always dreamed of,” says Ryan.

For those looking into a nursing career or growth in their current career, Ryan shares that there are different avenues to grow within nursing and paths to succeed in leadership.  There is the traditional education or leadership track which takes a staff nurse through a variety of leadership or teaching roles,  all of which strengthen and guide one’s future opportunities within the nursing profession.“

Ryan is grateful she has been afforded the opportunity to grow within UConn Heath and feels being offered such responsibility was easy to accept because of all the support she has received by so many individuals in her journey.