Catherine Catrambone: Advancing a global journey for the 21st century

By Elizabeth A. Carlson and Patrice K. Nicholas | 11/11/2015

Sigma Theta Tau International inaugurates its 31st president


It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.
Ursula K. Le Guin, environmentalist
Catherine “Cathy” D. Catrambone, PhD, RN, FAAN, is fully engaged in the journey of professional nursing and, as the newly inaugurated 31st president of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI), is committed to leading the organization and the profession into the future. Catrambone, a native Chicagoan, embodies the best of nursing—a sense of responsibility, commitment to others, inclusive leadership, and 21st-century thinking.
Early in her nursing career, Catrambone became engaged in advancing environmental and community health, becoming a member and, subsequently, a leader of the Respiratory Health Association (formerly the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago). From smoking prevention and tobacco control to asthma management and care, Catrambone also leads initiatives for clean air. Her efforts at local, regional, national, and international levels to engage the nursing profession in improving air quality and the health of the world’s people are groundbreaking. The emerging focus on global climate change is accelerating initiatives that Catrambone has championed across her career. She is passionate about the role of nursing in responding to these worldwide challenges.
Beginning the journey
As the third oldest of 12 children in an Italian Catholic family of modest means, Catrambone was a caregiver from her earliest years. Her father was a leader in health care information technology at Loyola University, and her mother, the CEO of the household, led the family with humor and hard work. It took teamwork for 14 people to juggle space and schedule activities in the three-bedroom home the family occupied in a near-western Chicago suburb, but one constant was their tradition of having dinner together every evening.
Whatever the immediate family priority, Catrambone was the one who assumed oversight. Although “organized confusion” reigned amidst the constant activity, the home was filled with love and joy, and Catrambone speaks fondly of her role in supporting the needs and priorities of the Catrambone clan, including helping her siblings achieve their academic goals. Indeed, being raised in a large family, says Catrambone, was her best preparation for the nursing profession.
Her youngest sister, Theresa Gerace, comments:
Although we often call each other sister, that relationship really doesn’t even scratch the surface of the role that Cathy has played in my life, the lives of our brothers and sisters, my mom, and our nieces and nephews. When I was growing up, my mom counted on the older girls, particularly Cathy, to help take care of us. She was the one I shared every emotion with and the one I went to for advice on everything. She was always an exceptional role model for me and continues to be for my kids and me. They look to her for support in all their endeavors because they know that she has a sincere interest in their lives and truly wants to be there for them. She is there to comfort them when they’re sick, to celebrate all their accomplishments, no matter how small.
Cathy has a special talent for making any conversation conclude on a positive note, and her enthusiasm for life and helping people has been a great influence on my family. She is one of the most humble and understanding people I have ever known. One of her famous quotes is, “If you need a nurse, I know a good one,” which means, if you need help or are in pain in any way, including emotional, financial, physical, and, of course, chocolate withdrawal, she’ll be there for you. And somehow, she always is.
Catrambone_BSN_embed_SFWCatrambone’s college education began at Rosary College—now Dominican University—in River Forest, Illinois, a nearby Chicago suburb. A year later, she transferred to Loyola University Chicago, where she completed her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree in the College of Nursing. It was during new-student orientation at Loyola that she met Greg Trexler, a student leader who helped organize the event. A decade and a half later, two years after Catrambone completed her Master of Science in medical-surgical nursing at Rush University College of Nursing, their long-term courtship would blossom into marriage.
After graduating from college, Catrambone moved back to the family home to help raise her younger siblings and assist financially. In 1990, her father was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer and died shortly after. Since her father’s death, Catrambone has been her mother’s main support. She notes, “Not having my own children has made it possible for me to stay close to and spend extra time with my mother.” The two of them share a mutual love for opera and, for many years, have enjoyed the benefit of season tickets to the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
At age 35, Catrambone was married and began a new chapter in life, but her close family involvement has continued and, with the marriages of her brothers and sisters and the arrival of 37 nieces and nephews, has even expanded. Trexler has always been supportive of Catrambone’s role in her family but, sometimes, especially as the immediate family has grown to 58 members, her role as a second matriarch has resulted in some challenges. As he often lovingly teases after nearly 25 years of marriage, “My next wife will be an orphan.” He observes:
Cathy was a caregiver from her youngest days. We often share that Cathy’s mom raised the first six children in her family, and Cathy raised the second six children—a role that Cathy embraced with gusto. She remains close to all of her family members and appreciates that her passion for the nursing profession emerged from her early role at home providing holistic care for her siblings. And this was before holism as a term was mainstream.

Cathy attributes the values that she has developed in her career to the influence of parents who instilled in her the qualities of love, courage, and honor, just as Sigma Theta Tau International inspires nurses worldwide to embrace storgé, tháros, and timé. Just as Cathy has shown her commitment to the Chicago community through advocacy for lung health, Cathy’s well-known Chicago family has demonstrated a tremendous commitment to the community. The family is so well-known and beloved for their commitment to strong values, ethnicity, and heritage that the Catrambone Family Park was built, which honors the family history of immigration. The bricks in the park are inscribed with the names of Catrambone family members and those who have served proudly in the military.
Catrambone_park_embed_SFWFrom the earliest days of Catrambone’s nursing education—from her BSN at Loyola to her MSN at Rush University College of Nursing to her Doctor of Nursing Science degree at Rush University (later converted to a PhD)—Trexler has championed her nursing career. In identifying some of her most notable qualities, he includes integrity, humanity, and humility, observing with proud confidence that, as Catrambone presides over STTI during the next biennium and the organization continues its global journey, she will do so with wisdom.
A journey of advocacy
Catrambone’s clinical positions have inspired her life’s work in respiratory care and advocacy. Her work as a staff nurse in medical-surgical nursing at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center (now Rush University Medical Center) led to her role as assistant head nurse on the non-invasive respiratory care unit. While practicing for more than 10 years on this unit, she observed firsthand the struggles of patients with chronic respiratory conditions, often linked to tobacco exposure and unhealthy living and working conditions. Inspired by her patients, she became assistant to the director of the Department of Nursing Services Research and Support, where her advocacy of issues promoting respiratory health gained further traction.
Upon completing her doctoral degree, Catrambone took on increasing levels of responsibility, including education/quality coordinator, project coordinator in the Center for Health Services Research, and project director at Rush University College of Nursing. In 2005, she became project director for the Asthma Study Coordinating Center at the John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, an organization that had launched important asthma-prevention initiatives in the community. Catrambone also led major initiatives and research grant activities as a co-investigator and project director, including: 1) the Chicago Initiative to Raise Asthma Health Equity, funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; 2) the Illinois Emergency Department Asthma Surveillance Project; 3) the Illinois Emergency Department Asthma Collaborative Rural Pilot Study; 4) the Illinois Asthma Mortality Surveillance Pilot Study, funded by the Illinois Department of Public Health; and 5) the Chicago Hospital Asthma Collaborative, funded by the Otho SA Sprague Memorial Foundation.
Catrambone’s advocacy role in respiratory health continued to expand. Nationally and internationally, she promoted public policies that advance respiratory health, providing expert testimony while partnering with local, regional, and national public figures to address primary, secondary, and tertiary care related to lung health. Most recently, as a representative of STTI, she served on a White House and Department of Health and Human Services panel to discuss ways to improve care quality and patient health. Her advocacy role involves strategic leadership and communication with local policymakers and legislators, as well as federal policymakers and environmental agencies. As Catrambone observes:
My role in leadership on behalf of lung health involved testimony before the Environmental Protection Agency and exposure to local, national, and international leaders who were committed to addressing smoke-free environments, asthma management, clean indoor air, and ozone pollution. From a nursing perspective, it was inspirational to engage in the important initiatives first espoused by our pioneer, Florence Nightingale. Nightingale’s efforts were aimed at achieving clean air—initiatives that are as relevant in the 21st century as when first described by Nightingale on behalf of a healthy global environment. In Notes on Nursing, What It Is, and What It Is Not (1898), Nightingale addressed the importance of clean air, clean water, light, efficient drainage, and cleanliness. These are timely issues for nurses worldwide as we engage in advocacy for global health and for those to whom we provide care worldwide.
Promoting a lung health agenda that emphasizes asthma reduction and prevention, smoke-free living, and clean air, Catrambone’s pioneering contributions to lung health include the creation of an innovative statewide, Web-based, asthma surveillance system for emergency departments. A central focus of her respiratory-health advocacy is substandard asthma care in a community heavily burdened by asthma morbidity and mortality.
As early as 1998, before engaging in national dialogue on the subject, Catrambone campaigned to improve asthma care in Chicago and, more broadly, Illinois. “I was struck,” she observes, “by a report on the state of asthma care in Chicago that revealed community-wide variations in key aspects of care, despite the existence of national asthma guidelines available for almost a decade.” She was the sole nurse on an interdisciplinary team that implemented, through local philanthropic funding, a series of unprecedented city-wide asthma collaboratives in primary care, emergency departments, and hospitals that reduced variation in asthma care across institutions.
As co-investigator of the Illinois Emergency Department Asthma Collaborative, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Catrambone spearheaded the development and pilot testing of two surveillance instruments to measure the asthma burden of patients admitted to emergency departments. The resulting community-level surveillance data drove improvements in care across six Illinois emergency departments and established the feasibility of the surveillance system.
As principal investigator of the Illinois Emergency Department Asthma Surveillance Project, which was jointly funded by the CDC and the state of Illinois, Catrambone developed a surveillance system which, to provide sustainability in a high-demand environment, was translated to a Web-based application. In addition to its user-friendly e-format, it provides real-time, comparative data for statewide and regional benchmarking with the prospect of using it to support federal benchmarking.
This innovative asthma surveillance system has since been used by 80 Illinois emergency departments and serves as a model program for statewide improvements in asthma care. Using data generated by the surveillance system, Catrambone has worked with directors of state programs such as Illinois Health Connect and Your Health Care Plan to promote patient follow-up within medical homes. The data are also used by the Illinois Department of Public Health to drive state initiatives for the Asthma Strategic Plan of Illinois. In addition to programs that directly promote improved asthma care, Catrambone has led multiple campaigns throughout Illinois for smoke-free environments, resulting in passage of landmark legislation that mandates them.
As chair of the Chicago Asthma Action Plan Advisory Council, Catrambone launched numerous initiatives that have increased asthma awareness and improved community care, including one that advocated for the right of students to carry inhalers while in school. She has chaired the Asthma Educator Certification Preparatory Workshop, a model education program that has helped more than 500 health professionals prepare for the national certification exam, and she has chaired, on behalf of the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Illinois Asthma Partners’ Executive Committee, which has developed and executed the Asthma Strategic Plan for Illinois. For her more than two decades of service on the board of the Respiratory Health Association of Chicago and her multiterm service as president of its Nursing Assembly, Catrambone has received the organization’s highest honor, the Herbert DeYoung Medal for distinguished service in advancing lung health.

As associate professor in the Adult Health and Gerontological Nursing Department at Rush University College of Nursing, Catrambone is a scholar, mentor, expert teacher, and distinguished faculty member. Marquis Foreman, PhD, RN, FAAN, John L. and Helen Kellogg Dean of Nursing at the college, observes:
Dr. Catrambone is one of the foremost nursing leaders in respiratory health. For the past two decades, she has been a member of a multiprofessional and multi-institutional team of researchers and clinicians committed to bringing care into alignment with national asthma guidelines. Her efforts leading the Illinois Emergency Department Asthma Surveillance Project (IEDASP) team provided real-time comparative data used to guide asthma quality-improvement initiatives across Illinois emergency departments and have relevance for national and global initiatives for respiratory health—a key area for nurses worldwide.
Diana Hackbarth, PhD, RN, FAAN, has been a long-time colleague and collaborator with Catrambone. Serving together as members of the board of directors, the executive committee, and Nursing Assembly of the Respiratory Health Association of Chicago, they have both been involved in advocacy efforts to promote smoke-free legislation and other initiatives to reduce the burden of lung disease at local, state, regional, and national levels. Of Catrambone, Hackbarth observes:
Her passion for promoting public health through research and activism in public policy for respiratory health are legendary. Her excellent people skills and ability to work with diverse groups and bring people together to focus on common goals are among her greatest assets. Catrambone’s most recent initiatives have expanded beyond the national level as she has become active in the Global Smoke-Free Partnership—a key area in advancing the health of the world’s people and in alignment with the goals of STTI.
For her excellence in teaching courses on outcomes management—including one on data and decision making for strategic outcomes management—students regard Catrambone as a renaissance teacher. A consummate professional, Associate Professor Catrambone is a role model for students entering the nursing profession or re-igniting their careers through graduate education.
Her other scholarly achievements are also noteworthy. In addition to collaborating across disciplines, she has been, in recognition of her expertise on asthma, guest editor of a volume of Nursing Clinics of North America. The author of numerous peer-reviewed articles, chapters, and presentations, Catrambone has provided expert testimony in local, regional, national, and international venues. In addition, she has served as principal investigator, co-principal investigator, and project director on more than 20 substantive grants related to respiratory health.
Advancing a global journey
As expressed by Le Guin in the quotation at the top of this article, Catrambone in her global journey personifies the truth that, in the end, it is truly the journey that matters. In making her STTI journey—from chapter leader of Gamma Phi to president-elect of the 135,000-member organization—she was assisted by mentors. One of them is Melanie Dreher, PhD, MPhil, MA, BS, John L. and Helen Kellogg Dean Emeritus of Nursing at Rush University College of Nursing, who served as president of STTI from 1995 to 1997. Catrambone describes Dreher’s mentorship as “inspirational,” observing, “She motivated me to choose Sigma Theta Tau International as my organization of choice—where I would commit to learning about leadership and scholarship, and offering my leadership in progressively broader and more strategic positions across my career.”
Dreher observes:
It has been deeply gratifying to watch Cathy’s leadership journey, beginning with her service as chapter officer in Gamma Phi Chapter at Rush University, continuing as Region 5 coordinator, and progressing to membership on the Sigma Theta Tau International board of directors—first as Regional Chapters Coordinating Committee chair and then as vice-president. While her colleagues at Rush University were delighted that Dr. Catrambone was selected to be president-elect in 2013, we were not at all surprised. Cathy brings the integrity and wisdom and imagination necessary to sustain the goals of Sigma Theta Tau International. She learned well and, in the process, became exquisitely prepared for the inevitable challenges in being president of the largest and most influential nursing organization in the world. As her former dean and a past president of STTI, I have personally experienced Dr. Catrambone’s rich capacity as a scholar and leader and person of influence. Her focus on chapter innovation, global growth and integration in the service of health, and development and deployment of technology will position the members of nursing’s only honor society—both individually and collectively—to transform health and change the world.
Catrambone is committed to the mission of STTI: advancing world health and celebrating nursing excellence in scholarship, leadership, and service. She observes that it was the grace of God, support from family and colleagues, a passion to serve, the desire to challenge herself, and an intentional leadership trajectory she mapped out that enabled her to serve in roles of increasing responsibility in the honor society at regional, national, and international levels: Region 5 coordinator, chair of the Regional Chapters Coordinating Committee, vice president, and, for the past two years, president-elect.
Catrambone’s leadership in STTI began with her election as chair of Gamma Phi Chapter’s program committee, continued as chairperson of the awards committee, and eventually led to chapter presidency during the 2000-02 biennium. Her regional leadership began with service on the mentoring/membership initiative for Region 5, representing 31 chapters in the U.S. states of Illinois and Missouri and the countries of Pakistan and Brazil.
In her elected role as chair of the Regional Chapters Coordinating Committee, Catrambone oversaw all of STTI’s global regions, a pivotal role that enabled her to focus on a key strategic goal of the honor society: addressing chapter health in a systematic way. Viewing STTI chapters as the foundation of the organization, Catrambone sees maintaining chapter health and vitality as essential components of the regional coordinator’s role. With that in mind, she chaired both the 2006 Leadership Academy and the RCCC Orientation Task Force, and served as judge for the 2007 and 2009 Chapter Key Awards, the International Clinical Scholarship Award, and the International Melanie Dreher Dean’s Award. Catrambone has also chaired the Showcase Regional Excellence Task Force, the Chapter Health Task Force, and the Chapter Key Award Task Force.
As a member of the STTI board of directors, Catrambone served on the Global Regions Task Force and the Communities of Interest Task Force, lending her leadership acumen to these strategic board initiatives. As vice-president, she provided expertise to the International Network for Doctoral Education in Nursing (INDEN) and Building Corporation Task Force and chaired the International Awards Committee. As board liaison to the Research and Scholarship Advisory Council, the Advisory Council on Policy, and the Leadership Succession Committee, she has shared substantive and strategic expertise gained from her progressive leadership appointments in the organization, thereby advancing STTI’s vision to become the global organization of choice for nursing. In addition to serving on these panels, Catrambone further promotes global health and nursing worldwide through leadership on the Global Advisory Panel for the Future of Nursing (GAPFON).

Reflecting on her background of extensive nursing leadership and, now, her inauguration as the 31st president of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International, Catrambone credits the successes she has achieved on her journey to her lifelong passion for nursing and the opportunities offered by STTI. As she assumes leadership for the next biennium, she embraces the organization’s history, accepts the responsibility of confronting contemporary issues that need to be addressed, and is well-prepared to guide STTI and its legacy into the 21st century and beyond.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” That advice has been inspirational in President Catrambone’s life and has infused her leadership roles in STTI. We invite you to join her as she leads the organization for the next two years. Embrace her call to action, and learn from her transformational leadership.
Carlson_Nicholas3_combined_SFWElizabeth A. Carlson, PhD, RN, is professor and chairperson, Adult Health and Gerontological Nursing, Rush University College of Nursing in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Patrice K. Nicholas, DNSc, DHL (Hon.), MPH, MS, RN, ANP, FAAN, is director of Global Health and Academic Partnerships, senior nurse scientist, Division of Global Health and Academic Partnerships, Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and professor, MGH Institute of Health Professions School of Nursing in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
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