Nancy J. Lee, MSN, RN, NEA-BC
Work That Matters

Nancy J. Lee, MSN: Keeping Patients and Families as her Beacon

Nancy Lee was born in Fairfield, Iowa and grew up in Lakewood, Calif. She went to Riverside City College for her nursing degree, and California State University Dominguez Hills for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing. Coming to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in 2016 meant Lee was able to realize her goal of returning to pediatric care, as well as move closer to family. Her favorite part about CHLA is the patients in the hospital’s care, and the quality of the hospital’s staff. “I have been so impressed with the amazing caliber of the staff who have chosen to work here,” says Lee. “I have been many places and worked with great staff but nothing quite like this.”

Five Questions

1. What did you say when you were a young girl and someone asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I wanted to be a musician. I played the alto saxophone and flute.

2. When did you realize you wanted to be a nurse, and a nurse leader?

First I had to realize that I was really not good enough to be a professional musician. My mother was a nurse, and since I had no other ideas I chose nursing—not the most methodical way to make a decision, but it worked out for me.

As I became an accomplished clinical nurse I got very interested in how to have an impact on more of the patients we were caring for. I climbed the nursing leadership ladder in a very traditional way, from charge nurse to nurse manager and then director. The CEO at our hospital believed very strongly in offering opportunities to young leaders, and she appointed me interim vice president of Surgical Services. I had no operating room experience at all. It was then that I learned that leadership is leadership, and doesn’t necessarily require deep content knowledge of the clinical environment—I loved it. I found the place where my talents and skills could be used to the greatest advantage to support clinical staff and great patient care.

3. Name a challenge you faced in your journey to where you are now.

I was the new COO for a small hospital system in Los Angeles and we basically were bankrupt. We had no cash to pay our vendors, staff fled to other hospitals with a more stable outlook and the local community still needed services. We had to partner with the community and the local churches to patch together services. We were a bunch of like-minded nurses and doctors all working for this community. I learned more about the power of working together than at any other time in my life.

4. Did anyone say to you, "You can’t do that because you’re a girl?"

Nursing is a predominately female-dominated industry, so I did not hear that kind of discouragement in my early career. I have bumped into physicians along the way who thought they could intimidate or “brow beat” me into getting their way, but I have always kept what is best for the patients and families as my beacon, which has consistently helped me navigate to the best outcome.

5. What would you tell a young girl right now who wants to be a nurse or nurse leader?

There has never been a better time to be a nurse than now. The options for a career are limitless. It is not an easy path, but it’s a very rewarding path. One of the common themes I hear from young people today is “I want to make a difference.” There are a million ways to do that as a nurse. I also hear, “I cannot stand needles or the sight of blood.” Neither do I, actually! That is such a very small part of what a young nurse does and experienced nurses may hardly ever work with needles or blood. Do not let something small like that keep you from making a difference.

Nancy J. Lee, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, is senior vice president and chief clinical officer at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.