Dr. Joanne C. Smith – Disability Medicine Loses a Legendary Leader

By Thea Flaum -- President, Hill Foundation

September 9, 2021

Dr. Joanne C. Smith, the longtime President and CEO of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (formerly the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) died September 7, following a private five-year battle with cancer.  She was 60 years old.

Dr. Smith continued to fully lead the AbilityLab during her illness.  The hospital was recently once again ranked number-one in rehabilitation by U.S. News & World Report for the 31st year in a row.

She was the driving force behind the transformation of rehabilitation care.

She had the novel –and, at the time, revolutionary—idea of creating an integrated hospital that surrounded patients with the scientists, innovators, and technologists doing research on their problems as well as the physicians and therapists who were treating them directly.  Working together, they were able to apply (“translate”) new approaches and research discoveries to patient care in real-time—a practice called “translational medicine.”

That vision became a reality with the opening of the $550 million Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in 2017.  The 1.2 million square foot research hospital’s leading-edge science labs are placed right into the clinical environment for the benefit of both patients and research.

“We are only going to do science in this building that is directly applicable to the patient,” Dr. Smith said at the building’s opening.  “We’re not chasing things for funding’s sake…We’re saying that the researchers, by living with the patient, will understand which problems they have to figure out how to solve first.”

Dr. Smith, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation (physiatry) with an MBA from the University of Chicago, managed a team of more than 2,000 clinicians, scientists and staff at the hospital, and was a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine for 25 years.  She was widely recognized as a thought leader.  She spoke at the Aspen Institute and at the first Wall Street Journal “Future of Everything Festival,” which focused on innovations that are transforming the world.

“She was a real force of nature—strong and indomitable,” says AbilityLab board member Thea Flaum, “but she never forgot to focus on her patients, and their desire to regain their abilities.”  She gave me great advice about how to develop, our website for families dealing with spinal cord injuries, and called it ‘a gift to this world’ after it was launched.”

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of love to Joanne—how her reverence for it drove and shaped her life,” said Rory Repicky, her husband of 33 years. “To Joanne, her work was always more than a job; it was a calling.”

She is also survived by two children, Claire and Michael Repicky, and a great legacy.

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