Good Medicine

By Kayla Molander


“It’s about solving problems,” says Nancy Paridy (LAW ’83).

Solving problems in the medical field—using the most modern, innovative models possible— is what Paridy has been advocating for decades. The effort has paid off: she now helps run the top-ranked rehabilitation hospital in the country.

Paridy is the president and chief administrative officer at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, where she was hired to create the hospital’s general counsel’s office in 1995, back when it was known as the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

“One-third of the people in the world will require some rehabilitation during their lifetime,” says Paridy. “That is a huge, huge number. We’ve really got to be focusing on the future and how can we help mold that future.”

In her more than 25 years at the institution, Paridy has taken on an increasing number of roles. Foremost among them, she was instrumental in the creation of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, the first translational research hospital where researchers partner with clinicians in patient care.

“Nancy is one of the most compassionate, hardworking, smart, perceptive, and dedicated professionals I know. She motivates everyone around her to do their best work,” says Laura Keidan Martin, partner at Katten, who has worked with and partnered with Paridy for years. “It constantly amazes me how many hats she wears and how well she wears them. In most organizations, it would take at least three people to fill her shoes.”

The model Paridy and her colleagues have built at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab remains well-received: U.S. News & World Report has ranked it as the #1 hospital in the country for rehabilitation for the last 33 years.

“In addition to caring for people with traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, stroke, and amputation, one of the many things we do really well is help condition patients before, during, and after cancer treatment,” Paridy says. “Because we have found that if we partner with their acute care physicians in regard to rehabilitation, patients actually have better outcomes.”

Dr. Richard Lieber, chief scientific officer at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, says Paridy brings a wealth of legal knowledge and expertise to the position, and is fueled by deep-seated empathy for everyone around her.

“One-third of the people in the world will require some rehabilitation during their lifetime. That is a huge, huge number. We've really got to be focusing on the future and how we can help mold that future.” —Nancy Paridy

“Her passion is authentic and her energy—she outworks us all,” says Lieber, who is also a senior research career scientist at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital and a professor at Northwestern University. “She is definitely one of the most considerate and compassionate humans I have ever known.”

Paridy says that her concern for people, especially patients with disabilities, is a major part of why she originally took the position—and why she continues to stay dedicated.

“My mother had a stroke when I was in high school,” she says. “So I particularly connected with people who had disabilities. Everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time, and it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. We need to celebrate our differences.”

But the male-dominated legal world didn’t always celebrate Paridy’s differences. When she was starting out as an associate at her first firm, now known as Nixon Peabody LLP, her boss received a letter from opposing counsel that complained about having to argue against a woman.

She wrote the associate a letter back, stating, “Dear [X], I am in receipt of your letter. I am the attorney of record now. I think it’s important for you to realize that 34 percent of last year’s law school graduates were women. If you have problems litigating against women, you might want to consider consulting the following career counselors to find a new career for yourself.”

Her next position was at the firm now known as Dykema Gossett PLLC, where she litigated many medical cases, often representing doctors and hospitals. She became one of the firm’s first female partners.

At the time, Paridy didn’t have many professional female mentors. They simply didn’t exist. Now she tries to fill that role for others.

“I’m committed to helping women stay in the legal field. I don’t like the term work-life balance because that pits the profession I chose against my life,” she says. “I like to talk about work-life harmony.”

Throughout her career, Paridy has advocated for innovation in patient care on a national level.

Since Shirley Ryan AbilityLab opened in 2017, Paridy has tried to advance its “wraparound” model—combining experts in various fields in one concurrent workspace—in other institutions across the country.

“We want to treat the most catastrophic cases, because we wrap research and clinical care around our patients,” she says. “But we also need to get out into the world and into the community and help other organizations provide the best practices and best care.”

For almost a decade, Paridy voiced those concerns on Capitol Hill. She tried to convince lawmakers of the need for a special designation for hospitals that perform research into traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries.

In December 2022 the United States Congress passed the Dr. Joanne Smith Memorial Rehabilitation Innovation Centers Act, which creates just such a designation. The law, named for Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s former CEO, provides a mechanism to extend best practices to rehabilitation facilities throughout the country.

“We need to get best practices out to the rest of the country, so all patients can benefit from it,” Paridy says.