Talk about having your career journey mapped out for you. Susan Stearn, senior construction project manager at Rush University Medical Center, had excellent directions when she started out.
Her father was a cartographer for Rand McNally; he produced some of the company’s most iconic road atlases and coffee-table books, including the International Atlas. Her mother started as a social worker and then became a residential real estate broker.
“Our household always had an emphasis on visual arts,” Stearn says. “My father was also a silk screener. There was always a Better Homes & Gardens magazine around with the renovation before-and-after shots. I just loved that stuff. I grew up in Glenview, Illinois, outside Chicago, and our family used to go downtown to look at the architecture. Exploring the way cities were put together always intrigued me.”
This made her college counselor’s job easy. “He said to me, ‘You love the arts and I see that you are good at math. How about architecture?’ And here I am. One thing led to another.”
Stearn attended the Architecture School at University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign and earned her master’s degree in urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois Chicago.
“I always liked the big picture, so when project management jobs came my way, those roles became my career path,” she says. “I got my communication and sound negotiating skills from my mother, and these allowed me to progress quickly on the business side of architecture.”
The first twenty years of Stearn’s career were spent in the commercial real estate sector, where she directed the architecture and interior design for shopping malls. “My goal was to improve on the cookie-cutter shopping center experience to make sure each mall’s common area was unique to the town it was located in by using local artists and relevant finishes and materials,” she says. “Little did I know that this background would come in handy in my next career in healthcare.”
Stearn works under the umbrella of Rush’s facilities group in the capital projects department. “I wear many hats,” she says. “In the past, I did project management and headed up Rush’s offsite ambulatory build-outs (specialty clinics), including Chicago’s River North, South Loop, and Oak Park locations, among other onsite projects. I’ve now taken on master planning campus space for clinical and administrative uses, and creating and updating design standards.”
Stearn describes her role as that of a chief experience officer (or, as she puts it, “a lower-case CEO”) and is assembling her FX (facilities experience) team to round the hospital common areas and keep up with required changes and maintenance. “In large and small ways, I work to make the campus environment better for visitors and for employees,” she says. “Visitors are here a few hours or a few days at a time, while employees are here every day. And in healthcare, many employees are here in the wee hours of the morning keeping things running. I work to make sure that projects and improvements that affect employees get attention and that we receive design input from the actual user.”
For example: behind-the-scenes areas that support patient spaces, such as janitors’ closets, security officer and environmental services locker rooms and break rooms, and administrative offices are all key to keeping employees engaged.
To foster community engagement, Stearn looks at outdoor areas as a canvas for public art. She is currently working with the Illinois Medical District Arts Council to assemble potential mural locations on the Rush campus for local artists to paint.
In her near-decade at Rush, Stearn has also sought input from healthcare practitioners. “I recently became aware that the rooms for residents on call—another seldom-acknowledged set of spaces—were in disrepair. I worked with the graduate medical education group, developed a criteria for the rooms, and outfitted each with new blackout shades, furniture, and lamps.”
The Rush campus has 22 buildings, the oldest of which was built in 1912. The newest will open in early 2023. “I am working to bring all buildings up to the level of that newest one for a ‘One Rush’ look and experience,” Stearn says. “Rush has some of the best medical care in the country; the physical environment should reflect that.”
She has also been partnering with Rush’s philanthropy and employee wellness groups to convert a donor’s COVID-19 gratitude funding into a large piece of beautiful stained glass with images of nature and flowers to be hung in a prominent public corridor.
Stearn receives enormous satisfaction from her job. “The people at Rush are a diverse and exceptional group,” she says. “Every day is different, and I learn something new from everyone and every project.”