Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Nursing teacher leaves legacy of passion after 45 years

Blessing-Rieman School of Nursing and Health Sciences Assistant Dean of Student Services and associate professor Ann O’Sullivan poses for a photo at Blessing Hospital. O’Sullivan recently announced her retirement and hopes that, after 45 years in the field, her passion for the work is the legacy she leaves behind. | H-W Photo/Jake Shane
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Aug. 14, 2017 9:20 am Updated: Aug. 14, 2017 9:26 am

QUINCY -- Ann O'Sullivan traces her almost half-century career that has combined a passion for nursing and a love of teaching to a summer job she got by chance.

O'Sullivan was born in New York City, but her family bounced around the east coast on an almost-annual basis -- her dad worked for DuPont and regularly was transferred. They settled in Chicago late in her high school career. After graduation, she enrolled at Northern Illinois University with a dream of becoming a teacher. Her mother was a nurse who always saw her daughter following the same path.

"I have just a few rebellious streaks, not much, but there was no way I was going to be a nurse," she said.

A friend who lived in the same dormitory helped her get a summer job at the friend's father's nursing home between O'Sullivan's freshman and sophomore years. After one of her first shifts -- she worked nights from 3 to 11 p.m. -- she rushed home and startled her mother awake. Unable to contain the excitement of her first experience in the medical field, she showered her mother with questions about enrolling in the nursing program.

"It was taking care of people, being with them, helping them out, smiling -- the little things," she said.

When the family helped her move back to school in the fall, her mother offered a loving "I told you so."

"I knew you'd always want to do that," her mother told her. She was right.

O'Sullivan met her husband, Bill, on her first day at NIU. He was a senior helping the younger students move into their new dorms. Emerging from her car, she noticed him down the road and pointed him out to her mother. He helped her move in that day.

"We say he's been carrying my luggage ever since," she said. "I never pack light."

They didn't start dating right away, but running in the same circles, they laid the foundation of a friendship. The couple married in 1971, and will soon celebrate their 46th anniversary.

O'Sullivan started her first job out of school in 1972 at Presence Mercy Medical Center in Aurora, earning an hourly wage of $3.90 -- counting the five-cent bonus she received for having her bachelor's degree. After one year working as a medical-surgical nurse, she transferred to the Intensive Care Unit.

Working in the ICU and pursuing her master's degree at night, she also began studying critical care on her own, which led her into teaching classes on the subject matter. Not long after, she became head nurse of the ICU -- the youngest head nurse in the building.

"In a way, that felt scary," she said, "but the director was helping me get along, even if I didn't know it at the time."

Teaching slowly worked its way back into her career path. Bill, who worked for the Illinois Department of Corrections, was transferred to Dixon, in the early 1980s, and O'Sullivan found herself with the opportunity to teach at NIU.

"I will never forget the first time I walked into the classroom, and they called me professor," she said.

The moment is etched into her memory. As she entered the 40-student class, she had a sort of flashback. She was instantly on the other side of the dais, sitting at a desk as a student while a teacher slid a paper across and told her how bad it was. The moment wasn't a psychiatric break of any sort, but the onset of such a vivid memory as she passed by her new students as an instructor overwhelmed her with anxiety.

"I just remember trying to get into my spiel," she said. "Luckily, I knew how to start a class and get things going, how to capture people's attention."

After the first bout of insecurity, the class went well. The office she was provided had once belonged to her advisor. She would later use the story of how her career had come full-circle as an icebreaker to engage her classes.

"You never know where life is going to take you," she said. "You never know when you might be the teacher in this room."

Another transfer in 1989 took the O'Sullivans to Mount Sterling, where they finally settled. After more than a decade of experience in the classroom, she considered only returning to teaching, rather than nursing. She began teaching senior-level classes on pathophysiology, leadership and critical care at Blessing-Rieman College of Nursing and Health Sciences in the summer of 1989, only a few months after the college had graduated its first bachelor's class. She found an affinity for teaching leadership.

"You're learning, somewhat, how to manage yourself," she said. "My basic philosophy is that you can't learn how to lead anybody else until you learn to lead yourself."

The oldest and often in charge of her four siblings, O'Sullivan always has considered herself a leader.

"My dad taught me that when you're in charge, whatever goes on is your responsibility," she said. "When things go well, it's really good. When things don't go so well, you figure it out. Leadership is not all glory."

In 2002, she became assistant dean of student services but continued to teach as an associate professor. After 28 years at Blessing-Rieman and 45 years in the field, she recently announced her retirement. Without hesitation, she described giving up teaching as the hardest decision she has ever made.

"There's nothing better than seeing a student get it," she said. "Teaching seniors, they've had three years of prep, and now they have to pull it all together. Seeing them get it makes you feel like you're making a difference, having a positive influence on this world."

She has seen several of her past students go on to become faculty members at Blessing-Rieman and is always quick to share the story of her first class at NIU with them. She has been involved with and assumed leadership roles in many state and national professional nursing organizations, has contributed to several major publications, influenced state and national legislation as a lobbyist and by offering her testimony and has led countless classes, seminars and workshops over the years. She hopes her passion is her lasting legacy.

"No matter what, I've always gotten more out of it than I've put into it," she said. "I've received an education you can't pay for."

Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story ?detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.

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