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Rush clinical nurse leads by example thanks to hospital’s unique shared governance structure

Justine Alipio first dreamed of becoming a doctor — drawn to the decisiveness and leadership afforded by the role, then later aspired to become a nurse anesthetist and administer anesthesia to patients during surgeries.

Those interests led her to her current role, where she combines leadership and bedside patient care as a critical care registered nurse in Rush University Medical Center’s cardiovascular intensive care unit.

“I started getting involved in quality improvement and working closely with my unit leadership at RUSH,” said Alipio, 32, of west suburban Westchester. Soon after, she put those skills to use when her fellow nurses voted her president-elect of RUSH’s Professional Nursing Staff in April 2020, just as COVID-19 reached pandemic status. She assumed the president’s role July 1, after more than a year on the front lines.

The pandemic tested RUSH’s staff nurses — whose jobs are emotionally and physically taxing in normal times — with double the volume of patients, including those with COVID in the cardiovascular intensive care unit. Many had ongoing treatment via ECMO machines, which use tubes to let the patients’ blood flow into an external oxygenator, or artificial lung, allowing the heart and lungs to rest.

“There was no reprieve,” said Alipio, who ended up staying in the city to avoid endangering her mother and grandmother back home in Westchester. “I was met with an overwhelming feeling of, ‘What am I going to face today?’ It was a challenge. Trying to think in a different way. It was a very overwhelming time.”

“It was a different adrenaline rush. You were running on the adrenaline of, ‘We have to do all that we can,’” she said. “And RUSH did an amazing job keeping us supplied with PPE.”

Alipio embodies that mentality, and so does RUSH: she’s leader in its shared governance structure, a unique approach to collaboration pioneered at Rush University Medical Center, one of the first adopters of this model in the country and in Illinois.

It provides avenues for professional growth, mentorship, and elevating the work of the clinical nurse, she said. It empowers nurses to take the lead in their practice, be agents of change, and chart new courses for innovation.

“It’s amazing to be able to see throughout the hospital how that translates into high-quality patient care,” Alipio said.

Her advice to her peers: Learn as much as you can.

“In a profession where you give so much of yourself, being involved in something you’re passionate about will always give back to you,” she said.

Alipio’s passion for nursing prevents her from leaving her work at the hospital, but it’s not the only reason she thinks about healthcare while at home: she’s currently planning her wedding, set for 2023, to Dr. Eddie Villa, an interventional gastroenterologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital.