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Nancy Albert has studied the heart and taught many others about it during her career in nursing, research and teaching, but her experiences aren’t strictly academic. She has hugged, consoled and helped people adjust to life after heart disease.

“Nurses spend a lot of time providing emotional support, in whatever form is needed,” said Albert, a heart failure expert and the associate chief nursing officer of the Nursing Institute in the Office of Nursing Research and Innovation for the Cleveland Clinic Health System. “In heart failure, people often want to know there is hope for the future.”

Albert’s commitment to patient care is one reason the American Heart Association recently named her Healthcare Volunteer of the Year.

Albert, who has published more than 200 articles and led many significant research projects, is also the clinical nurse specialist for the Cleveland Clinic’s George M. and Linda H. Kaufman Center for Heart Failure, Heart and Vascular Institute.
The road to her distinguished career began when she was a child. Being hospitalized five times for everything from tonsils to stomach aches probably influenced her decision to become a nurse. So did the fact that she was intrigued by frog guts in her high school biology class.

Along the way, she learned that there’d always be hard work — and lots of it.

“Pretty much everything I needed after the age of 13 I had to get on my own,” said Albert, who grew up in the Cleveland area with her parents and her three sisters. “There has never been a period when I haven’t worked.”

As she was earning her nursing degree at Cleveland State University, Albert was drawn to studying the heart.

“I had decided my second year of college that the heart was very fascinating to me,” Albert said. “It works tirelessly in sickness and in health. It adapts to change, it can strengthen with exercise, and indirectly, it is a symbol of love. There is a connection that is hard to describe fully.”

After earning her nursing degree in 1977, Albert continued her education at Cleveland State. She learned that in addition to hard work, perseverance is critical. Once she was devastated after failing a test to measure blood pressure readings, which she later learned only happened due to equipment not fitting properly.

“I’ll never forget the instructor who said, ‘Italians do not make good nurses,’” she said. “I went back to my dorm deflated and cried.”

But Albert quickly dried her tears, determined to prove she had what it took to succeed in nursing, eventually earning her master’s degree and her Ph.D. at Kent State University.

She was drawn to the complexities of open-heart surgery and the fact that she could see patients thriving afterward — “the whole continuum of dealing with heart problems and seeing patients progress and do better postoperatively.”

Albert started working at a hospital in Ohio in the late 1970s, eventually ascending to director of ambulatory care services. She stayed for more than a decade, until she couldn’t resist the idea of doing more. She wanted to be part of the latest advances in heart care.

That meant moving to the Cleveland Clinic, a research institute, which was using stents and other medical treatments for the heart before they were FDA approved. She became the nurse manager of the coronary intensive care unit 25 years ago, and has remained at Cleveland ever since.

“Working at Cleveland Clinic was so different than my previous work,” said Albert, who has held many positions there while raising three daughters with her husband, Jerry. “With new drugs and technology, and also, the wisdom of excellent physicians and nurse colleagues, it has been extremely exciting for me to be part of evidence-based practice, new knowledge and innovation.”

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She got involved with the AHA in 1999 when she joined the Cardiovascular Nursing Council program committee.

“It was fascinating work,” she said. “I liked meeting new people and hearing their views, having a chance to give feedback on behalf of other nurses and to be a patient advocate. I stay connected since there are always new, wonderful projects in motion that reflect quality, safety, new knowledge and science, health or advocacy — all elements of healthcare that I am passionate about.”

Albert oversees the nursing research and innovation team and programs of an 11 hospital system, incuding one in Abu Dhabi, and 18 regional medical practices and ambulatory surgical centers.

“We’ve learned so many lessons that improve patient outcomes. The idea that time is muscle with a heart attack is now a part of everyday life,” she said. “We know that some drugs we used in the 70s do not improve clinical outcomes. New technology has made a real difference.”

She noted that while cardiac treatments have long been medication- and device-driven, nurses are more apt to look at the whole person and consider treatments beyond medications and devices. Doctors, she said, have been catching on.

“We’ve all learned more about human needs and the importance of considering the whole person,” she said. “We have greater insights about the complexities of care, patient decision making and adherence to the plan of care.”