Nursing a Passion for ‘Little Girl from Charlestown’ Who Made it to the Top at MGH

On any given day, when Debbie (Swales) Burke heads to her job as the chief of nursing at Mass General, she walks through Charlestown and runs into old friends, and sometimes even her uncle walking his dog.

Living pretty much most of her life in Charlestown, and now being at the top of her profession at MGH, she said she feels so very fortunate to live in a community that is in the middle of the city, and still feels very small at the same time.

“It’s great because I have a sister on Bartlett Street and everyone else is still in the area, if not in Charlestown,” she said. “The furthest one is in Beverly. I really, really like how the community has grown. It’s a destination place. It’s close to the city and up and coming, but I still get that small town feel in Charlestown. When I walk to work, I see my uncle walking his dog. That’s very special. It’s a place I’ll never leave.”

The same could be said of her position at MGH, the senior vice president for patient care and chief of nursing, which she has held for exactly one year. It’s a position she never aspired to, and nursing was something that grew on her as her career progressed.

Growing up in Charlestown, she was familiar with having a big family and many people around her.

“I’m the oldest of seven kids,” she said. “My mother is one of nine siblings and my father is one of 11 siblings, and all are Charlestown people. So, there is and was always some family member around somewhere.”

Burke grew up in the busing era in Charlestown, and so after going to grammar school at St. Francis de Sales Elementary, the former Holden School and the Edwards Middle School, her parents put her in Girls Catholic School in Malden.

It wasn’t until after high school that she would find the profession that she loves today.

“Nursing wasn’t something I knew I wanted to do,” she said, from her office at MGH in the West End. “When I got out of high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I went to Bunker Hill (Community College) for one year. Then I got some advice from a cousin of mine who suggested nursing. I thought I’d try it. I liked the schooling and looked at a lot of jobs, but felt MGH was the place to come.”

Since that time, she has never left and never looked back.

“I got here to MGH and found it was an amazing place,” she said. “It’s the smartest people that work here and at the same time, it’s this community hospital for people in Charlestown, Chelsea and Revere. And it feels that way too. When you work here, you feel you’re providing this top notch level of health care and at the same time you feel like you are so local.”

Burke graduated from nursing school at the old Malden Hospital, and then received her Bachelor’s Degree from Northeastern University. She went to Salem State for her Master’s in Nursing and for a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA). She also received her doctorate in nursing practice.

That advanced education, she said, is what propelled her from her regular nursing job to being a top administrator and chief nurse at MGH.

Nowadays, she said she continues to make the rounds on the floors, trying to avoid staying in an administrative office all the time. She’s even been known to take a quick walk over from Charlestown at night to see how things are going on the night shift.

In addition to the 5,800 nurses under her watch, she also supervises health professionals like physical therapists, occupational therapists, chaplains, and respiratory therapists – to name a few.

“It’s a huge group,” she said. “I like to think of it as people most often caring for the patients. It’s a large team, but it makes sense. We’re all one big department because we’re all contributing to caring directly for patients…In this job, you have to still stay connected. Two times a week I have staff meetings and that’s going out and meeting staff in their environment. I like to go and have open forums with people. It helps me because I get to hear a lot and connect with the front lines.”

After leaving Charlestown for several years, branching out to other parts of the state, Burke said she had this urge to return home.

That was 20 years ago, and now she can’t imagine not being in her home community, living and working within walking distance – close to family, friends and co-workers.

“I’ve been back now for 20 years,” she said. “It’s going to be the place I stay forever. I love Charlestown and I think it’s gotten even better over the years. It’s more of a mix of people and I’m excited to be here. The number one thing is I feel fortunate to be here.”

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