When Grace Wakulchik was a Cuyahoga Falls High School student considering a career in health care, a friend’s mother introduced her to a nurse who had earned her master’s degree. At the time, most nurses were trained in hospital-based schools and not colleges. But Grace took her advice and enrolled at Case Western Reserve University.
“She suggested that I get a bachelor’s degree in nursing and then a master’s, and that was a big influence in my career,” she said.
That early decision paved the way for Grace, who retires this month, to eventually ascend to the top spot at Akron Children’s. She was named president in 2017 and added CEO to her title in 2018. She also served Akron Children’s as vice president of operations and chief operating officer, vice president of patient services and chief nursing officer and director of inpatient nursing in her 29-year career here.
Grace earned bachelor’s degrees in sociology and nursing and a master’s of science degree in nursing from CWRU as well as a master of business administration from Kent State University. But before she ended up at 1 Perkins Square, she worked in nursing at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital and hospitals in Missouri and Pennsylvania.
Her experience as a nurse and nursing supervisor at a small hospital in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, was one that left a big impression on her.
“There would be times there wasn’t a doctor in the hospital,” she recalled. “You would do almost everything.”
That attitude of keeping one foot in patient care while managing people is something Grace carried with her throughout her career.
“I always wanted to keep my clinical practice going so I worked as a transport nurse in addition to being a manager,” she said. “One day a week I would work in any of the areas that I supervised, so I could understand the problems that were going on. It was important for me not to lose touch with that.”
Just as someone steered her as she considered her career options, Grace said one of the best parts of her role at Akron Children’s has been seeing others grow and thrive at work.
“I’m most proud of the people who I worked with and have seen grow in their jobs,” she said. “You like to see people achieve their dreams.”
One of those employees is Pam Baker, chief nursing information officer (CNIO), who first worked with Grace when she was in her first role at Akron Children’s in the Career Ladder program.
“She proved to be a great mentor over the next 30 years,” Pam said. “She actively encouraged me to complete my master’s in nursing and was very supportive as I developed my career here at Akron Children’s and branched out into new ways to meet patients’ needs with roles that had not been in our system before we developed them, such as inpatient case management, department performance coordinator and CNIO.”
Grace said she’s also proud to see that family-centered care is something Akron Children’s is continuing to provide as it expands to fill the need for more pediatric health care in the region.
“I started my career back in the ’80s with a focus on family-centered care and I believe that people live that here,” she said.
The past three years haven’t been without their challenges, among them the competitive regional health care climate.
“There’s a declining market for pediatric care, so to grow we have to continue to expand and provide services to children in the area,” she said. “If we do not remain independent and are taken over by a system, what happens is the resources to provide care get marginalized. We never want kids to be an afterthought.”
Akron Children’s COVID-19 response also took up half of her tenure as CEO.
“We have an excellent team, led by Lisa Aurilio and Dr. Rob McGregor, that has managed our COVID work, and that whole team did a fabulous job,” she said. “It was a great example of our teams doing the best things they can; a great example of how our mission really helped focus our response to that crisis.”
Chief Operating Officer Lisa Aurilio said Grace’s leadership is a big part of the hospital’s success.
“Grace modeled the way in how to never take our eyes off of what is the right thing to do for our patients and families and continuously striving for excellence,” Lisa said. “Her leadership impacted the careers of nurse leaders within the hospital as well as regionally and nationally. I have been fortunate to work under Grace as my only ‘boss’ for 18 years and am grateful for her leadership.”
What’s next for Grace? The mother of four is looking forward to welcoming her second and third grandchildren – boy and girl twins – by the end of the year. In early 2022, she anticipates finally attending her son’s wedding in Italy, which has been rescheduled twice due to COVID.
“I’m just very grateful that I was able to spend my career here, because it’s such a meaningful place – the mission is meaningful and the people are wonderful,” she said. “What a blessing it is that I’ve been able to work in a career that I love.”