DANVERS — While Patricia Ahern began her career as a nurse, she never worked as a hospice nurse.
So it might seem unusual that she has just taken over as president and CEO of Danvers-based Care Dimensions, the largest hospice agency in the state.
But Ahern, who also has an MBA, says it was her work as a critical care nurse that set her on a path that led to a new career field, providing hospice and palliative care for the terminally ill.
"I believe now that I was getting ready for my hospice job all along," she said. "When it was the night shift in the trauma center, and there was an accident and the teenager that was driving didn't survive, I was the one that had to call the mother."
"In the long run," she added, "I think I was getting ready for my hospice work, because I have a natural affinity for helping people bring some calm to their chaos."
She brings that affinity, and an extensive background in managing medical programs, to Care Dimensions, where she started May 1, following the retirement of Diane Stringer, who led the organization for 27 years.
Care Dimensions was founded in 1978 as Hospice of the North Shore, and it was one of the nation's first hospice providers. It has come a long way since then.
In 2016, the nonprofit organization had an operating budget of $59.6 million and employed 487 people. Last year Care Dimensions served nearly 5,000 patients, up from just over 500 in 1995.
Care Dimensions declined to report Ahern's salary. Stringer, her predecessor, earned nearly $663,000 in 2015, plus almost $44,200 in other compensation that year, according to the nonprofit's latest Form 990 income tax return on file with the Attorney General's Non-Profit Organizations/Public Charities Division.
Recently, the organization hit the 500-employee mark. It's planning to open a second inpatient hospice house this fall on the Waltham/Lincoln town line to serve Greater Boston. This would be in addition to the Kaplan Family Hospice House on Liberty Street in Danvers.
Cubs to Red Sox
For Ahern, there are adjustments to make, and not just involving a new executive position.
She grew up on the north side of Chicago, making her a Cubs fan. She's just getting used to the idea of rooting for the Red Sox, though it helps that the Cubs' president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein, formerly of the Red Sox, helped break the World Series curse for both teams.
"I grew up near the L tracks that took me every Wednesday morning in the summer to sit for free in the bleachers to watch the Cubs — and the side benefit was that it was also Sailor Day on Wednesdays," she laughed.
She wanted to be a singer when she was growing up, but her mother suggested she go to nursing school so she would always have a job.
She got a nursing diploma from Saint Francis Hospital School of Nursing in Evanston, Illinois. Later she got a bachelor's degree from Northeastern Illinois University and an MBA from North Park University in Chicago.
"I always say I'm a registered nurse with an MBA, which makes me a little bit country and little bit rock 'n' roll — it's a little unusual," she said.
During the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, she was responsible for the HIV and AIDS program at St. Joseph Hospital, which served the Chicago community most affected by the disease. She learned about hospice care because the hospital needed a trusted partner to take care of their patients with dignity and respect, without judgment, often at home, she said.
After that, while earning her MBA, she helped the hospital's CEO with a merger with another hospital, essentially working herself out of a job as director of merger services. Then a CEO job with a hospice provider opened up.
She became president and CEO of the nonprofit Rainbow Hospice and Palliative Care in the Chicago area for 18 years, starting in 1996. It was a tough time for hospices; euthanasia advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian was active then, and the backlash spilled over to hospice and end-of-life care organizations.
She eventually grew Rainbow Hospice from 30 patients a day to 450.
Seeking a challenge
At age 58, she became concerned about retiring in place, so she took a job as CEO of the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care in Buffalo, New York. The organization was struggling at the time. This organization serves 500 hospice and 350 palliative care patients daily, and Ahern was there for three years.
"Then a call came from Care Dimensions about this position," she said.
The "happy coincidence" for Ahern is that her daughter, Kate, now lives in Boston, working for Bain Capital. Her son, Daniel, lives in Illinois and works in human resources for Allstate. Her husband agreed to make the move, she said, after checking to make sure there are enough golf courses on the North Shore. She's renting an apartment in Danvers while her husband of 39 years stays behind in Buffalo to sell their house.
So far, her new job, though for a much bigger agency, offers something pleasant that she hasn't experienced before.
"I was telling my mom on the phone the other night that this is the first job, the first management job that I've had in my career, where I haven't had to come in and get the train back on the rails," Ahern said. "It's not broken, this is not a turnaround."