Mary Kay
​During her 38-year career at UHN, Mary Kay McCarthy has built an exceptional reputation for leading teams through change. (Photo: UHN)

If Mary Kay McCarthy has one piece of advice for UHN colleagues who will be delivering tomorrow's care, it's to embrace new challenges – and your team.

"Take advantage of learning as much as you can in every moment, because you'll inevitably borrow from those experiences down the road," says the Clinical Director of Toronto Rehab's Complex Continuing Care program.

And it's that ethos which has propelled her through a dynamic 38-year career at UHN, from which she'll retire at the end of December.

It's a career that began in 1985 as a registered nurse at Toronto Western Hospital (TWH) on the Cardiovascular Surgery and Cardiology Inpatient Unit after graduating with a B.Sc. in Nursing from the University of Windsor.

After transitioning from frontline nurse to clinical educator, Mary Kay became a manager of the Medical/Surgical and Neuro Intensive Care Units at TWH.

It was there that she recognized in herself an ability to lead teams through change.

She played an instrumental role in merging the two units together and leveraged clear communication to get through critical moments.

"The ICU was a wonderful place for my skillset and satisfaction," says Mary Kay of the department she managed from 1994 to 2005.

"Patients and their families were at very challenging crossroads in their lives, and in order to deliver exceptional care, we had to work together interprofessionally, hear from each discipline and make everyone's voice count.

"When you're in the thick of it, communication requires heavy lifting. But it's joyful at the same time, because you can share that sense of satisfaction, when you've been able to make an impact together."

As Clinical Director for ED/GIM, Mary Kay McCarthy, pictured (second from right, standing), with the Toronto Western Executive team in 2015, directly impacted patient care by focusing on operational improvement, change management and advocacy. (Photo: UHN)

'Data is critical to putting the story together'

The ability to bring people together, to meet a common goal, served Mary Kay in her next role.

For the next 14 years, she served as Clinical Director of the Emergency Department/General Internal Medicine (ED/GIM) and Liver Clinic – first at TWH, then combined with Toronto General Hospital (TGH), and finally dedicated at TGH, where Mental Health was added to her portfolio.

It was a role she initially debated accepting.

"I thought, 'how can I impact patient care when I'm further from the bedside?'," says Mary Kay. "But I soon learned that, by focusing on operational improvement, change management and advocacy, the opportunity is still there – it just looks different."

With growing alternate level of care (ALC) pressures and patient surges demanding teams look at new ways to enhance patient flow, it was up to Mary Kay to ensure her programs had the resources they needed to be successful.

"Through her leadership, we implemented a number of quality improvement initiatives and operational efficiencies that improved the pathway for patients – many of which still endure today," says Dr. Robert Wu, an internist who worked alongside Mary Kay as the Site Director of GIM from 2011 to 2019.

"But what really stands out is how collaborative she was, and the smile she'd bring to every effort – no matter how daunting it felt," Dr. Wu says. "For Mary Kay, it wasn't just about the bottom line, but truly how to make things better for patients."

According to Mary Kay, it was Marnie Escaf, UHN Clinical Vice President, who taught her the power of advocacy.

"Marnie helped me understand the importance of using data to advocate for my program," says Mary Kay. "She coached me on how to create briefing notes based on facts, and that linked back to the needs of patients.

"She was a really strong supporter and mentor."

Mary Kay McCarthy, (L), celebrated UHN's recent Gratitude Week with colleagues from Toronto Rehab, Bickle Centre, where she co-led Toronto Rehab through UHN's clinical transformation, powered by a health information system from Epic. (Photo: UHN)

"Early in our relationship, I told Mary Kay, 'Imagine you have as long as it takes to ride two floors in an elevator to make your point – you have to be that concise.'" Marnie says. "She usually went over six floors, which would make us laugh, but that's what I love about her.

"But her unwavering commitment to quality and dedication to patients has earned her respect from all. She's relatable, down to earth and has made an incredible impact on the organization."

Mary Kay also credits her success as a program advocate to Janet Newton, UHN Clinical Vice President, who she has reported to for the past four-and-a-half years, as Clinical Director of Toronto Rehab's Complex Continuing Care program.

"Jan has been an amazing mentor, helping me build on the skills I brought into this role," says Mary Kay.

"She asks me the hard questions that remind me how important it is to know my patients, what their needs are, and who is in the beds. That data is critical to putting a story together that can result in gaining the additional resources patients need."

According to Janet, it's Mary Kay's tenacity, humour and ability to simply get things done that she'll miss most.

"Mary Kay is a thoughtful advocate for patients, families and staff," says Janet. "She is driven by her desire to make the system better for all and has an incredible ability to articulate exactly what needs to be done and why."

She always comes to the table with solutions and reminds us all what is possible."

During this final chapter in her career, Mary Kay has been instrumental in enhancing Toronto Rehab's Low Tolerance Long Duration rehab program, creating more than 60 transitional care beds to support flow during the COVID-19 pandemic, and co-championed Toronto Rehab through the UHN's clinical transformation, powered by a new health information system.

"It's hard enough to think about opening such a significant number of beds at any time, but doing so during the pandemic is absolutely astonishing," says Dr. Kevin Smith, UHN President & CEO.

"I'll miss Mary Kay deeply. I always knew, when I saw her name on an agenda, that the issue, initiative, or work at hand would be done in an exemplary way with the greatest focus on patients and the great respect of staff."

'Remember your purpose'

After four decades of being on-the-go, Mary Kay is looking forward to taking time to adjust to a different pace.

"I wish I had a great retirement plan, but I don't!" she laughs.

"My husband, Patrick, and I plan to visit our daughter, who is living in Australia. But we mostly talk about travelling, staying healthy – both physically and mentally – and spending time with family and friends."

At the same time, she's excited for the potential of the teams she's leaving behind.

"It's the people at UHN who make it such a special place," she says.

"What you do is very important, but it's the way you treat each other that really matters. Being open to different perspectives, new ideas, and strategies is what enables strong teams and excellent outcomes.

"There's so much to be done, to push health care forward, in the face of new challenges. And you'll get there, if you work together."

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