Photos by Caitlin Cunningham
In July 1998, a single needlestick unexpectedly and permanently changed Karen Daley's life.
A staff nurse at Brigham and Women's Hospital, the Connell School of Nursing alumna had just drawn blood from a patient and was disposing of the instrument when she felt a deep prick from another discarded needle in a box already jammed with them. She wasn't especially concerned about it at the time; needlesticks were not uncommon occurrences. But this one, she would learn, was different. Months later, tests confirmed she had contracted both HIV and hepatitis C from the injury.
Suddenly, the rewarding career she loved was over. In its place came a treatment regimen that included a cocktail of potent antiviral drugs—up to 21 pills a day.
At first, she says, she didn't know what she would do next, or even if she would survive. One thing, however, she did know: that what happened to her should not happen to anyone else.
She became a key proponent for state and federal legislation to mandate use of safer sharps devices, and is now nationally recognized for effecting positive change in the health care system.
The Connell School recently honored Daley's career as clinician and crusader with this year's Dean Rita P. Kelleher Award. Named after the school's first faculty member and former dean, the Kelleher Award recognizes a Connell School graduate who is an accomplished nurse leader, an ethically aware scientist, and an inquisitive clinician.
"Karen truly exemplifies what it means to be a BC Nurse," said Connell School Dean Susan Gennaro in presenting the award at an event during reunion weekend.
Daley did not set out for a career in advocacy. She had been on staff at Brigham and Women's for 26 years before her injury occurred—a job she loved, she told the audience during a Q&A following the award presentation; she couldn't imagine doing anything else.
The early treatment protocol and its associated side effects left her exhausted, but she channeled what little energy she had into educating herself about sharps injuries. Like many nurses, she had considered the occasional needlestick to be "just part of the job." When she learned that safer devices had been available since the 1970s, but only 15 percent of hospitals were using them—despite the hundreds of thousands of sharps injuries that were occurring each year—she began her crusade, taking the cause first to the Massachusetts legislature, then to Washington, D.C.
Though she was president of the Massachusetts Association of Registered Nurses at the time, she was neither accustomed to, nor especially comfortable with, public speaking, she said. But determination outweighed trepidation; she met with leaders, testified before Congress, and, ultimately stood in the Oval Office on November 6, 2000 when President Bill Clinton signed the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act into law. The legislation required, among other provisions, employers to make safety devices available and to involve front-line workers in their selection and implementation.
VIDEO: Connell School of Nursing alumna and 2017 Kelleher Award winner Karen Daley shares her story.
Daley's advocacy did not end there: She continued to champion enhanced safety protocols across the country and abroad, and to educate herself about issues in nursing and health care. She earned both master's and doctoral degrees at the Connell School, in 2004 and 2010 respectively, and was elected president of the American Nurses Association—representing the interests of 3.6 million registered nurses—just two months after defending her doctoral dissertation at BC.
For her inspirational service to her profession and to health care, she has been recognized by the American Academy of Nursing, which named her a fellow in 2006; by ANA Massachusetts, which named her a Living Legend; and by Modern Healthcare, which lists her among its “100 Most Influential People in Health Care” and “Top 25 Women in Healthcare.” She currently is a member of the Board of Trustees for the American Nurses Foundation and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Today, nearly two decades after her injury, she reflects on her years in nurse leadership with gratitude for the work that "gave meaning and purpose to her life" when she needed it most, but adds, with undiminished zeal, that there is still work to be done. New technologies have emerged, she said, that can create a safer work environment, "but the momentum behind doing the right thing has slowed."
She continues to meet with nurses around the country, at all stages of their careers, listening to their stories and encouraging them to get involved and make their voices heard. "I use every opportunity I have to engage in important conversations about the direction of health care," she said, "and about the important role that nurses can play in shaping that direction."
—Patricia Delaney | University Communications