“YOU CAN BE SUCCESSFUL and be a mom.” This is the heart of Dr. Mary Ann Kliethermes’ message to female pharmacists concerned about balancing a career and a family. She should know. The mother of four recently received ASHP’s Award for Distinguished Leadership, recognizing her dedication and work in expanding patient care roles for pharmacists in current and emerging healthcare models.
For Dr. Kliethermes, however, success isn’t about winning awards. “Awards are very nice, and I truly appreciate them,” she said, “but for me, it is about connecting with people.” Whether those people are patients, other pharmacists, or physicians, Dr. Kliethermes’ connections with them result in better care, better communication, and better outcomes.
Mentoring with a Mother’s Touch
Dr. Kliethermes, Pharm.D., is the Vice Chair of Ambulatory Care and a Professor at the Chicago College of Pharmacy. Mentoring young faculty is her favorite part of her job. “I love mentoring!” she said in a recent interview. “Other than the dean and myself, [the faculty] is fairly young, so they are just starting to have kids and deal with the balancing act that comes with it.”
Dr. Kliethermes’ passion for mentorship began in the late 1970s and early 1980s during pharmacy school. Many of her mentors were physicians, and one in particular left a lasting impression. “He was kind to patients, incredibly smart … patients came from around the world to see him … and he took an interest in me along with everyone else, not just the medical students,” recalled Dr. Kliethermes. “He wouldn’t leave a patient’s room on rounds until I heard the heart sounds, too.”
Dr. Kliethermes believes that motherhood has enabled her to be a better mentor. “When you’re mentoring young people, it’s like what you did with your kids to make them successful. Caring, and dealing with the challenges of growth — just like with children. It’s my natural approach,” she said.
Dr. Kliethermes credits working part time as an important step in balancing career and family. Sixteen months after having her first child, she gave birth to a set of twins who arrived two months premature. Life with three children under the age of 2 was complicated. “There were no daycare options,” Kliethermes explained. “Just getting them all in the car was a challenge. We couldn’t afford a nanny. I realized I needed to go part time.”
When she proposed reducing her work hours to the Director of Pharmacy at the hospital where she worked, he said he had never heard of a part-time Pharm.D. “He told me that if I wanted to come back part time after maternity leave, I could staff,” she said. But Dr. Kliethermes wanted to do clinical work. “I was the only clinical pharmacist at that hospital,” she explained. “I was doing a lot of work with the nutritional support team and with medical residents.”
Luckily, the physician in charge of nutritional support also had twins and convinced the Medical Education Department to hire her part time. After that, and while she was still on maternity leave, the Pharmacy Department relented and agreed to let her work fewer hours.
In total, Dr. Kliethermes worked a pared down schedule for 23 years. Eight years after having her twins, she had her fourth child. She continued working as a clinical coordinator at the hospital while her children were in grade school — training residents about dosing, helping nurses, assisting in the ICU, and even taking calls at home when necessary. Eventually, Dr. Kliethermes and her husband, who is also a pharmacist, became co-owners of two home-infusion companies. She worked part time for the infusion companies until they were sold.
When her three older children were in high school, Dr. Kliethermes began working with the University of Illinois College of Pharmacy’s “Refill Ten” program, for patients with 10 or more prescriptions. She worked from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., building the program from 21 patients to about 150. “Basically what I did was medication therapy management,” she said. Her proudest moment came when a particularly curmudgeonly physician told her, “I’ve been taking care of this patient for five years, and I’ve never seen her blood pressure so well controlled. The program must be working.”
Advice for Pharmacist Moms
Dr. Kliethermes draws on her motherhood experience to help her be a better pharmacist. “My way of dealing with patients is very maternal. It’s like dealing with kids. How do I get them to do what they are supposed to do? [Counseling patients] blends with motherhood,” she said.
Dr. Kliethermes tells women she mentors the same thing she tells her children. “Do what interests you. Follow your heart, follow your passion,” she said. “I never set my sights on advancement. I did the things that I was passionate about. I don’t know that I did anything in particular to be a leader, but I was always willing to do whatever needed to be done.”
Dr. Kliethermes encourages female pharmacists to “fight to practice at the level that you want to.” She noted that often it was physicians who helped her to do that, rather than fellow pharmacists. “Don’t accept ‘we’ve always done it that way.’ Fight for what you need,” she added.
Dr. Kliethermes believes that working part time can help mothers balance career and family life. “You don’t want to miss your children’s childhood,” she said. “Don’t miss events. Be there at games. Coach them. Be there for concerts when they can’t play the tuba very well. Be the driver — some of the best conversations with your children take place in the car.”
Dr. Kliethermes could not be prouder of her own four children and the paths they have chosen. They have all become “successful, independent, happy, well-adjusted people,” she said. “None went into pharmacy — they all chose what they should be.”
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By: Ann W. Latner, JD