Marian University Student Success Story – Mary Kay O’Brien

February 23, 2021

Enjoying retirement, Nursing graduate Mary Kay O’Brien reflects on 40+ years in health care

How does someone who’s seemingly seen it all across 40+ years working in health care prepare for a pandemic that seemingly nothing could prepare you for? By going back to the basics.

And for Mary Kay O’Brien, who recently retired from being a nursing supervisor at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, that meant going back to what she learned in the Marian University Nursing program.

“I reverted back to what was instilled in me as a student – gather information, establish the known facts, consider what can be done, think about what the available resources are, and develop a plan,” said the Appleton native, a 1974 graduate and daughter of a St. Agnes School of Nursing graduate. “Marian’s Nursing program was built on the expectation of excellence, so I was very vocal during the early stages of our planning, and having that confidence to speak up was a direct result of my time in the program.”

In fact, not many would suspect that Mary Kay – the second oldest of 11 children – was once incredibly shy. With her father adamant she attend a private school, she looked at several options across Wisconsin, but ultimately landed on the one that felt like the best fit and offered the most financial aid.

“With the small class sizes, and professors who care about you and get to know you, everything just felt so familiar and safe,” she said, noting that her high school graduating class was larger than Marian’s total student enrollment at the time. “I found myself and I found my voice at Marian.”

She also found the Nursing program to be incredibly hands-on and emphasizing clinicals. Looking back, she is grateful for all of the practical information she received, but found that learning from professors who were still working as nurses to be invaluable.

“I always appreciated being able to incorporate the classroom knowledge I was gaining immediately into my clinicals,” she said. “Learning from working nurses, you know what you’re getting isn’t just academic knowledge, but rather it comes from real-life experience, and that’s not something you get with every Nursing program.”

After graduation, Mary Kay worked as a nurse in Oshkosh for a year, then moved with her husband to work as a nurse in New Orleans for another year before returning to work in Milwaukee for 44 years – 37 in the ICU, and the final seven as a nursing supervisor overseeing six buildings and 15 units.

During that time, she strove to positively impact the next generation of nurses in the same way her Nursing faculty did. And in the few instances she came across a fellow Sabre, she recognized that excellence continued to be a quality the Nursing program demanded even after she’d left.

“Whenever I would come across them, it was so abundantly clear how invested they were in doing what was best for the patient,” she said. “They seemed to have that same determination and drive that I did coming out of graduation, and they had the same expectation for excellence and passion to advocate for what was right.”

Now retired, Mary Kay anticipates spending time with her two grandsons, her three children, and her 92-year-old mother, who she hasn’t seen since February 2020, and George – her husband of nearly 47 years.

“2020 was a scary, but also interesting, time to be a nurse, and I’m looking forward to not being concerned about what impact seeing my loved ones could or will have on them,” she said.