2008 Distinguished Alumni Award Honoree
Joanne Disch leads people and organizations on journeys they need to take — though they might not know it at the time.
In May 2008, Disch is ending her two-year term as chair of the national board of directors for AARP, the leading membership organization for people age 50 and over in the United States.
She credits her nursing background with making her so well-suited for leading a board that helps set the health care agenda for more than 40 million members. Colleagues and friends say she has a special talent for getting people to see issues from a wider, holistic perspective — through what she calls her nursing lens.
Disch’s nursing career began in high school when she landed a job as a nursing assistant at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison. She liked the discipline of the work and the camaraderie of the team. She valued relationships, both with patients and coworkers, and this shaped her philosophy of life: Information is power but relationships are the key.
Her parents placed a high value on education, and moved the family to a neighborhood with a good parish and parochial school, where Dominican nuns taught their daughters.
“They were phenomenal educators with a passion for teaching,” says Disch.
She also found time for fun and was a cheerleader — “somehow no one is surprised today when they hear this,” she says.
When it came time to choose a college, Disch bucked the trend of enrolling in a diploma nursing school for the rigor of a liberal arts education. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she immersed herself in academic and social opportunities, running for student government, joining a sorority, and juggling a series of part-time jobs and her studies.
“My four years were rich and full,” she says.
After graduation, Disch joined the cardiovascular surgery ICU team at University Hospitals, working her way from staff nurse to head nurse. Looking back, she says the first seven years of her career were transformative, providing an outstanding foundation with extraordinary leadership, a passion for work and high standards.
“When I look back at the things we were doing 40 years ago, treating the patient as a full partner in health care,” she says, “it shaped my career and colored who I am.”
For graduate studies, Disch wanted to experience another part of the country — a yearning that became a trend in her professional life. She earned her master’s degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she was inducted into the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau. The society provided a steady, professional connection and source of enrichment throughout her career.
As a sorority housemother at the University of Michigan, Disch lived with 65 young women who “provided an immediate, large family and home base,” while she earned her PhD in the early 1980s.
“Those were my kids,” she says, and she still keeps in touch with several today.
She went on to hold positions at Rush-Presbyterian in Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania, culminating in her appointment to the Katherine R. and C. Walton Lillehei Chair in Nursing Leadership at the University of Minnesota, where she currently directs the Katharine J. Densford International Center for Nursing Leadership.
“Ive always worked at universities, in major idea-generating types of places,” says Disch. “The power of ideas is important to who I am.
“When I look back, each experience has incredibly enriched how I think about and live my life,” she says. “I have many friends in health care who live in different parts of the country. I’ve been exposed to many different ways of thinking and solving problems, and it has helped me become a better leader.”
These qualities were a selling point when she ran for the AARP board in 2002, despite having no prior experience with the organization. Out of some 800 candidates vying for seven open seats, Disch’s fresh perspective landed her one of the open spots. She was elected chair in 2006, and during her term, she guided the organization through a major restructuring.
As her two-year term winds down, she’s most proud of being able to move the organization in some new directions.
She’s not actively looking for her next endeavor, but she knows it will come. She currently serves on boards for several organizations, including Allina Health System, the largest health care delivery system in Minnesota. A former president of the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, Disch was recently honored with its GE Pioneering Spirit Award.
“Joanne has become invaluable to me through her service on the School’s Board of Visitors,” says Dean Katharyn May of the UW-Madison School of Nursing. “Despite her incredibly busy life, Joanne willingly volunteers to help with our campaign to build a new home for the School of Nursing on campus.”
Nurses bring a relationship-based, people-oriented, pragmatic approach to the table, Disch says.
“When my friends and I put our heads together to fix something, we say, ‘well, we’re nurses.'”
“Colleagues will come up to me years after we worked together and say, ‘that was a really challenging time, but it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.'”