In the 1970s, some Millikin students found winter term to be an opportunity to travel, enjoy a more relaxed pace or pursue an interest outside their major. But for Kathy Russell ’78, it was a turning point. In 1976, the pre-med major took a course in allied health, where students chose a profession and a program, researched it and made a class presentation. Russell explored the occupational therapy program at Washington University, and her friend, Beth Lyman ’78, researched the nursing program at Wesley-Passavant School of Nursing in Chicago. By the end of winter term, the two Pi Phis had each decided to pursue the program presented by the other – Lyman applied to occupational therapy at Wash U, and Russell made up her mind to study nursing at Wesley-Passavant.
Her decision started Russell on a career journey that has included work as a pediatric oncology nurse, a clinical instructor in pediatric nursing, a law school student, a medical malpractice attorney and, most recently, a food pantry manager. What’s the common denominator of such a wide-ranging career path? To Russell, it’s the opportunity to be an advocate for others.
“As a pediatric nurse, when you care for a child you also care for the family,” she says. “You have the responsibility to tend to the child’s medical and developmental needs as well as a chance to serve as an advocate for the child and the family at a very difficult time.”
It’s a role Russell enjoyed, working first at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago and then at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. After earning a master’s degree in nursing from UCLA, she moved back to Chicago in 1986 and took a position teaching pediatric nursing at Rush University Medical Center, where she was encouraged to pursue another advanced degree. She decided health law would be a good fit, earning her juris doctorate and a certificate in health law in 1992 from DePaul University. Rather than return to teaching, Russell decided to use her medical and legal knowledge as a patient’s advocate, working as a medical malpractice attorney for the law firm of Pavalon & Gifford.
“Being a trial attorney was all-consuming and extremely hard work, but I loved it,” Russell says. “Because I had the nursing background, I understood the medicine, which gave me more understanding of the patients’ concerns and more credibility with the medical staff and experts I was deposing. It was very satisfying to have the chance to continue to advocate for patients, just in a different way.”
Russell became a partner in the firm and continued that work until 1999, when she and her husband, Charlie Krikorian, decided to explore adoption. Within a month of beginning the process, they welcomed 1-year-old Allie to their family, and Russsell left the practice to take on a new advocacy role as a mom and, by extension, a school and community volunteer.
That volunteer work led Russell to her latest career adventure, serving as co-operations manager of the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, a non-profit group whose mission is “working together to provide hunger relief in our community.” Since 2005, when Russell began volunteering, the Pantry has seen a 170 percent increase in the number of clients it serves, and nearly 24,000 people received food in 2008. Securing food donations, raising money, organizing volunteers and educating the public are all part of Russell’s job. She’s found that the skills she picked up as a nurse, teacher and attorney come in handy in her current role.
“I spent a lot of time asking juries for money, and that’s definitely a skill I use in fundraising for the food pantry,” she says with a smile. With donations climbing from $45,000 in 2006 to more than $166,000 in 2008, there’s no doubt her work has made a difference. She says this work, too, is about advocacy. “We advocate by raising money, by telling the stories of the people we serve and by working with the Illinois Hunger Coalition on legislation that will help our clients.”
For their efforts, the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry received the Outstanding Agency Award for 2008 from the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “I’m proud of our whole community for stepping up in so many ways, as donors and volunteers, to advocate for people who don’t have the means to feed themselves,” Russell says. “I’m grateful to have a chance to be a part of that work.”
by Cathy Good Lockman ’79
The complete article appeared in spring 2009 issue of Millikin Quarterly magazine.