The Dean of the NYU Rory Meyers School of Nursing, Gold Trustee, and visionary nursing leader will be receiving the 2023 National Humanism in Medicine Medal
When Eileen Sullivan-Marx was a child, she found herself in the hospital multiple times, a young patient becoming all too familiar with the healthcare system and the fragility of the human body. In each visit—for ailments common and complicated—she was surrounded by nurses, whose steady presence both calmed and intrigued her.
As a young girl, Eileen felt instant kinship. “I was surrounded by these caring people who I found very interesting and curious, and I was never afraid,” recalled Dr. Sullivan-Marx. “I was utterly fascinated by absolutely everything that was going on.”
When her younger brother became ill with cancer, and later died at age 8, then too, nurses were a steadying, empathetic force. “It was the nurses in the community who just embraced the situation and my family,” said Dr. Sullivan-Marx. “A lot of times people ask, Do you have nurses in your family? I didn’t, but there were all these other nurses in the community. I had this very heavy exposure to that compassion and authority and a role that no one else played.”
Seeing the impact of nurses firsthand set Eileen on her career path at the age of 12. “Even at that early age, I was discerning the difference between having compassion and really using yourself in a situation to make a difference,” said Dr. Sullivan-Marx.
This deep connection to humanity became the foundation of a remarkable career in nursing that has impacted generations of students, faculty, and colleagues, as well as countless patients. Eileen Sullivan-Marx, PhD, RN, FAAN, FGSA, is currently Dean of NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, where her leadership is helping to mold the next generation of nurses. She is also past president of the American Academy of Nursing, which she led during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a Trustee of the Gold Foundation and the United Hospital Fund, as well as a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the Gerontology Society of America.
In recognition of her lifetime of transformational leadership, Dr. Sullivan-Marx will receive the National Humanism in Medicine Medal at The Arnold P. Gold Foundation’s Annual Gala on June 20. She will be awarded the medal this year alongside Dr. Richard I. Levin, visionary physician President and CEO of the Gold Foundation; the Honorable Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, national health policy leader, founding Dean and President Emeritus of the Morehouse School of Medicine, and former Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services; and Dr. Gina S. Brown, global nursing leader and Dean of the College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences at Howard University, who is Dr. Sullivan-Marx’s partner in creating a synergistic collaboration between NYU Meyers and Howard University.
“During her distinguished career, Eileen has always been a passionate advocate for nurses, patients, and humanistic care for all. We are delighted to honor her and her great impact on healthcare in America and around the world,” said Richard C. Sheerr, Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Gold Foundation. “In her role on the Gold Board, at NYU, and in countless other leadership positions, she has transformed challenges into opportunities to craft a better future.”
The award acknowledges her commitment to keeping humanism at the center of healthcare, and her tremendous contributions to the advancement of nursing through education, practice, research, and collaboration.
“No matter what I’m doing in my career, that sense of service to the human condition has always been inside me,” said Dr. Sullivan-Marx.
“When you see a gap, step into the gap.”
Throughout her youth, Dr. Sullivan-Marx was surrounded by family and friends making a difference in ways both large and small. Her mother, for example, served as judge of elections in the neighborhood.
“I think I was always cultivated by teachers, by older family members, by others as a leader,” Dr. Sullivan-Marx noted. “There were a lot of people showing me that making a difference is what you were supposed to be doing.”
Dr. Sullivan-Marx dove into these opportunities even as a teenager in the 1960s. She lived in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial steel mill town of about 10,000 people in Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. To address unrest in the community during the height of the Civil Rights movement, a group of local leaders formed a panel of teenagers—from across ethnicities and backgrounds—who worked on service projects together and appeared before local organizations and on the radio to speak about their shared aims. During her senior year of high school, she also was elected to participate in the Girls State program run by the American Legion, in which students learn about politics by forming a mock government.
These early experiences formed an ethos that infused her future work. “Throughout my career, as things came up, I always looked at them as opportunities,” said Dr. Sullivan-Marx. “So when you see a gap, step into the gap. That’s a great opportunity to rally and come together.”
Leading the way both locally and globally
Dr. Sullivan-Marx received her nursing degree at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing in 1972, and her BSN at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in 1976. She earned a master’s degree in 1980 from the University of Rochester as a family health nurse practitioner. Her clinical experiences are wide-ranging. She has cared for patients as a nurse in the emergency department, including a year in the Indian Health Service in Gallup, New Mexico; worked in community and home health nursing; and been an owner of a private primary care practice.
In the early 1980s, when Dr. Sullivan-Marx first became a nurse practitioner, the field of nurse practitioners was still relatively new, especially related to the care of older adults. Here, Dr. Sullivan-Marx saw an opportunity to change the system. Over the course of a decade, she helped to launch several nurse practitioner programs with a focus on geriatrics, some of which are still active today. Her stance at that time was rooted in action: “I’m going to go into areas that nobody’s gone to before, like the fact that there’s no geriatric nurse practitioners. I’m going to help to define what that means, and then I’m going to show people how to do it.”
Dr. Sullivan-Marx earned a PhD in gerontological nursing from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in 1995. Through a long and distinguished career at Penn Nursing, she served as Professor and Associate Dean for Practice & Community Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, and began several initiatives focused on improving care for older adults, including the Living Independently for Elders (LIFE) program and the Program for All-Inclusive Care of the Elderly (PACE). Her efforts to build and sustain team models of care helped to grow the PACE program from 75 persons to 525 persons in five years, which saved the state of Pennsylvania fifteen cents on the dollar in Medicaid funding and launched numerous older adult team programs in academic centers as well as the Veterans Administration.
In 2012 Dr. Sullivan-Marx left Philadelphia to become Dean of the NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, just weeks before Superstorm Sandy hit New York City. The challenges were immense—hospitals without power and closed for months, clinical education interrupted, people around the city in need of care—but her vision and steadfastness helped the school come out better prepared and more agile in the face of crisis.
In retrospect, Dr. Sullivan-Marx is matter-of-fact, drawing on the can-do attitude instilled in her youth. “Everyone lives through these events and these challenges,” she noted. “I see them as opportunities.”
Her tenure at NYU Meyers is marked by significant milestones, including the completion of the nursing school’s first dedicated campus and a generous naming gift from the Meyers family that sustains scholarships for first-year students in need.
Dr. Sullivan-Marx noted that NYU is uniquely positioned as the largest global university, with 15 sites around the world. Under her leadership, faculty and students at NYU Meyers engage in initiatives spanning over 25 countries across Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and Africa, where they collaborate with a host of international partners to create high-quality programs. This work brings lasting change to nursing practice and education in these countries, improving the health of local communities. She recently was recognized by the nonprofit organization Nurses With Global Impact, Inc. for her work to advance nursing both locally and globally.
“We’re now being much more intentional in trying to do something that sustains this work and has different kinds of outcomes, not only for the students, but for the places that we impact,” said Dr. Sullivan-Marx. “Again, it’s working with the institution and the system and the opportunity and closing some of those potential gaps.”
A single question can be the spark
This idea of stepping into the gap is a through-line in Dr. Sullivan-Marx’s distinguished career. And sometimes creating lasting change means leading the charge.
When Dr. Sullivan-Marx was a graduate student studying to be a nurse practitioner, her mother asked her a question about how insurance and billing worked for that emerging field. Dr. Sullivan-Marx didn’t know, so she researched and wrote a paper about it.
Fast forward several years, and Dr. Sullivan-Marx became the first nurse to serve as the American Nurses Association representative to the American Medical Association’s Resource Based Relative Value Update Committee. In this role, in which she served for over a decade, she worked with a collaborative, interdisciplinary team that helped to reform the Medicare and Medicaid programs payment structure, demonstrating through research that nurse practitioner and physician work can be valued equally.
This sea change is the accomplishment she is most proud of in her career, as well as the one with the most lasting impact. “If nurses are not part of the payment structure, you don’t have continuity,” she said. “You don’t have access and you don’t have visibility.”
That one simple question from her mother formed the backbone of this advocacy. “It became a key part of everything that I’ve done to this day,” said Dr. Sullivan-Marx. “All of this Medicare work and all of this reflection on where nurses and nurse practitioners fit in finance came from that question from my mother.”
Dr. Sullivan-Marx has always been active in regional, state, and national policy. She has served as the Chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on Senior Care Services and as a member of the Philadelphia Emergency Preparation Review Commission. Just after the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, she served as an American Political Science Congressional fellow and Senior Advisor to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid services offices of Medicare and Medicare Coordination. She is also a former member of the American Academy of Nursing’s Board of Directors.
Humanism and progress require partnership
In 2021, NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing and Howard University’s College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences committed to working together to improve health and reduce health disparities in both urban and global communities. This important partnership was led by Dr. Sullivan-Marx and her fellow 2023 National Humanism in Medicine Medalist Dr Gina S. Brown, Dean of the College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences at Howard University. The two were introduced by Dr. Bernardine Mays Lacey, a trailblazing nursing leader, advocate, and educator, who had been a mentor to both Dr. Sullivan-Marx and Dr. Brown.
“Gina and I were so like-minded. We agreed and understood that we just had to go all in,” said Dr. Sullivan-Marx. “We knew this was not going to be a little side project. It was going to be central to who we are and what we do in both of our schools.” This partnership aims to deeply integrate the nursing schools at NYU and Howard, leveraging each institution’s strengths to create opportunities for collaboration and connection across all areas of education and research. The two schools held the inaugural Dr. Bernardine Mays Lacey Health Equity Research Symposium in March 2023.
Dr. Sullivan-Marx is a Trustee of the Gold Foundation, which, under the leadership of her fellow honoree Gold President and CEO Dr. Richard I. Levin, has expanded its reach to nursing schools and nurses. “The relationship that medicine and nursing has is unique. It’s part of humanism,” noted Dr. Sullivan-Marx. “All societies have a relationship between the carers and the curers; it’s always been those two roles. And that’s what we’re saying now at the Gold Foundation. Get that working well, and the rest will follow.”
Entering the “gadfly stage”
Dr. Sullivan-Marx will retire as Dean of NYU Meyers this year, a tenure bookended by Superstorm Sandy and the COVID-19 pandemic.
When asked what advice she would offer to new nurses, she shared, “Know that the core of why you’re doing this is the compassion, but you’re doing it with confidence and with authority and with a skill set that you’re stepping into.” She advises students to lean on the American Nurses Association Code of Ethics throughout their careers, noting how foundational the document is. “It’s everything from caring for yourself as much as caring for others. Speaking up, being an advocate, speaking truth to power.”
So, what’s next after retiring as Dean, besides the opportunity to enjoy season tickets to her beloved Phillies? “I’m going into a new stage and the stage that I’m entering into clearly now is called the gadfly stage,” she laughed. “And the gadfly is where you say what’s on your mind, but you’re doing it in a way that comes from your experience and your authority. I can say, well, my opinion is based on this, take it or leave it.”
One way she will continue to share her voice is by hosting a twice-monthly Nurse Practitioner show on NYU Langone Health’s Doctor Radio Sirius XM station, which reaches both professional audiences and lay people interested in health and healthcare.
In a career that has seen so many significant milestones and touched so many lives, Dr. Sullivan-Marx’s best advice circles back to what she was taught as a child: “Find the gaps, look at them as opportunities and jump in,” she said. “And then figure out: how can I make a difference?”
Learn about the other three 2023 National Humanism in Medicine Medalists: Dr. Richard I. Levin, Dr. Gina Spivey-Brown, and the Honorable Dr. Louis Sullivan. All were celebrated at the 2023 Annual Gala in New York City.