Alumni Spotlight: Lynda Gruenewald-Schmitz, '03

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 7:20:00 PM

Alumna embraces innovation; leads nursing profession into its next chapter

The nursing profession has always been a natural fit for Lynda Gruenewald-Schmitz, '03. Her path was clear as early as high school when she developed an interest in the health sciences.


“I always saw nursing as a very stable profession with endless opportunities…to grow, to lead, to help people,” said Gruenewald-Schmitz.

She credits her family as her biggest supporters, always encouraging her to take leaps in her career.

Her parents (a plumber and a teacher) instilled in her a strong and consistent work ethic, emphasizing the importance of education. Her mother, Karen (Woltring) Gruenewald, '74, was the only one of her siblings to earn a college degree. This distinction was no small feat for any member of the post-Depression generation, but Gruenewald was determined to make it work – and so she did. After marrying and starting their family, she enrolled at (then) Cardinal Stritch College, earning a degree in math.

Gruenewald-Schmitz cites her mother’s example as inspiration to always seek education opportunities. With her parents’ full support, she earned a degree in nursing and began her career.

One of Gruenewald-Schmitz’s first nursing jobs was in hospice care in New York.

“At the time, I just fell into it,” said Gruenewald-Schmitz. “I certainly didn’t expect hospice care to become my passion, but it has.”

She quickly learned, however, how rewarding and challenging the work can be.

“Nurses in hospice care do not provide only clinical attention,” she explained. “This line of work requires the whole person – clinical/professional knowledge, emotional depth, communications skills. Every detail matters.”

In the earliest years of her career, Gruenewald-Schmitz developed a lifelong commitment to providing comfortable end-of-life care for patients and support for their grieving families.

This commitment led to one of the hallmark achievements of both her professional and personal lives.

In 1998, on a field trip with her son’s class, Gruenewald-Schmitz bonded with a sweet little boy named Kyle. Two months later, she was shocked to learn that Kyle’s mother had died in a car accident.

While spending time with Kyle in the months following his mother’s unexpected death, Gruenewald-Schmitz thought often of a child bereavement center she had helped launch in New York. She knew that Kyle and his younger sisters needed a place like that, but there was no such center in Milwaukee.

In October 2001, Gruenewald-Schmitz founded Kyle’s Korner, a bereavement center for children and their families. With the help of the School Sisters of Saint Francis and countless hours of research, she was able to fill this significant void within the community and provide children with resources and support as they mourn loved ones.

During this time, Gruenewald-Schmitz was also working in a leadership position in hospice care. Still focused on continuous education, she had implemented new programs for her staff.

“I tend to approach change and opportunity through education,” she said. “To be able to sleep at night, you have to know that you are doing all you can for your patients.”

The new programs had immediate results that led to better care for hospice patients and their families. The positive changes inspired Gruenewald-Schmitz to more formally advance her education.

In 2000, a mother with two young children, a fulltime job for which she was always “on call,” and a Kyle’s Korner nearing its launch, Gruenewald-Schmitz enrolled in Stritch’s Master of Science in Nursing program.

Although she was certain that she wanted to earn her MSN, Gruenewald-Schmitz admitted there were plenty of challenges along the way. She credits Stritch’s supportive faculty and her cohort with helping her persevere.

“Dr. Ruth Waite was my advisor at the time,” said Gruenewald-Schmitz. “Her support and encouragement are what got me through.”

Gruenewald-Schmitz remembered one particular day when the delicate act of balancing time with her family, a fulltime job, building Kyle’s Korner, and her MSN coursework was starting to become overwhelming.

“I walked into Dr. Waite’s office to discuss the challenges I was facing,” she recalled. “And she wouldn’t give up on me.”

Waite encouraged Gruenewald-Schmitz to stick with it and helped to adjust her course schedule to provide a more manageable balance.

“I am so grateful for her support,” said Gruenewald-Schmitz. “She may not know this, but she helped to start Kyle’s Korner. I couldn’t have done it without her encouragement.”

In addition to the support she received, Gruenewald-Schmitz credits Stritch’s MSN program with opening her eyes to entirely different specializations within the nursing profession. She loved learning from the other nurses in her cohort about orthopedics, oncology, and pediatrics.

In 2011, Gruenewald-Schmitz was named vice president of clinical innovation for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare. She was recruited for the position through her pioneering work with Kyle’s Korner.

“I was ready to embrace a new challenge,” said Gruenewald-Schmitz. “The position offered a tremendous opportunity to use my experiences to help vulnerable populations.”

As vice president of clinical innovation, she focused her efforts on helping departments challenge the status quo and move toward more patient-focused processes.

Gruenewald-Schmitz currently holds the newly created position of vice president and chief nursing officer of non-acute services, a role that she is enthusiastic about developing.

“Nursing is reinventing itself right now,” she explained. “Traditionally, clinic-based nurses haven’t had direct access to nursing leadership, but the role of nursing is becoming much more visible.”

Gruenewald-Schmitz believes that Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare is on the cutting edge of the profession’s development. She recently attended a national conference for nursing executives. When asked, in the room of more than 300 people, who held her position, only a handful of individuals responded.

She believes that new roles in nursing are the answer to many of the healthcare reform challenges ahead.

“We are seeing a lot of changes in healthcare,” she said. “More than 50 percent of patient care is now provided in outpatient settings. Since we’re treating more chronic disease, there needs to be more emphasis on primary care.”

She maintains that changes in healthcare need to be met with patient-centered care, and nurses are prepared to do so.

Gruenewald-Schmitz references an example of a person living with diabetes. If the individual experiences urgent complications due to his condition, he will typically visit an urgent care clinic to receive immediate attention. Providers often have only 15 minutes to spend with the patient, and it may not be enough time to adequately address the comprehensive care needs of the patient.

If that same individual, however, has a well-established relationship with his primary care physician, more emphasis can be placed on education and prevention of complications. Gruenewald-Schmitz would like to see clinics offer more education sessions and provide more than medical treatment.

She believes that nurses are key individuals in patient advocacy. Because they spend more time with patients, they may be able to assess more deeply than medical symptoms. For example, a nurse who knows an elderly woman’s husband recently passed away may pick up on symptoms of depression.

“We need to view our patients as whole people,” said Gruenewald-Schmitz. “Patient-centered care is about seeing more than just the medical symptoms. We, as healthcare professionals, have to be able to make those personal healing connections with patients.”

This is an unprecedented time in the nursing profession, and one that is filled with opportunities and excitement. With a legacy of patient advocacy throughout her career, Gruenewald-Schmitz is just the person to lead the changes.