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Susan Stuart

Innovation is in the DNA of Susan Stuart, President & CEO of The Center for Organ Recovery & Education (CORE)

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Susan A. Stuart, RN, MPM, President & CEO of The Center for Organ Recovery & Education (CORE) in Pittsburgh, one of 56 federally designated not-for-profit organ procurement organizations (OPOs) in the United States, has a passion for innovation. That passion has led CORE to its fifth consecutive year of breaking records in the number of lives saved and healed through organ, tissue, and cornea donation.

“I have never liked the status quo,” says Stuart. “Innovation is so important to our community, and we owe it to those recipients who are waiting for transplant. We owe it to our donor families to try and maximize every organ, every gift that they want to give, to go on to transplant or research. That’s the one thing the donor families will often say to us – they just want the transplant to happen. They want that gift to give the gift of life.”

Stuart serves on the Board of Directors of the Organ Donation and Transplantation Alliance (The Alliance) and chairs the planning committee for The Alliance’s upcoming National Innovation Forum: The Future of Organs for Transplant which will be held virtually on April 30. Planning for the meeting’s agenda is underway and topics may include xenotransplantation, organ regeneration, decellularization/recellularization, 3D printing, and cryopreservation.

Innovation is the Right Thing

“If you go to the conference on innovation, you can learn about new ideas to bring back to your organization that can make an impact,” says Stuart. “That’s what happened to me with The Alliance’s NRP conference that I attended in Philadelphia in 2023. I thought ‘we just have to do NRP, this is the right thing to do’ and I brought it back to our board and leadership team and everybody agreed. We have been doing NRP since The Alliance’s March 2023 NRP Conference.”

“The Alliance is just so ahead of themselves in identifying the state of transplant and donation,” she continues. “They have such a vision and they’re making such an impact in this community and helping us to move forward. They are a big part of why transplant is increasing across the nation and that 2023 was another record year with over 46,000 transplants. I really applaud The Alliance – they are a part of making this success happen.”

Baldridge and Innovation

A nurse by training, Stuart has led CORE since 2004 and says that the commitment to a never-ending performance excellence journey has guided CORE’s success year after year. In 2019, CORE was recognized with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, a presidential award that recognizes innovation and excellence. “I’ve always felt that you have to keep challenging yourself,” says Stuart. “You have to keep driving process improvement if you want to make a difference and to grow personally and professionally. It’s in my DNA.”

In 2021, CORE made headlines around the world when, because of their mantra “Every Donor, Every Time,” CORE successfully recovered a liver from Cecil Lockhart – who, at age 95, became the oldest organ donor in United States history, saving the life of a woman in her 60s.

In 2023, 404 organ donors from the CORE service region spanning western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Chemung County, NY resulted in 928 transplanted organs, a 21 percent increase compared to CORE’s previous record. Stuart says that CORE’s record year is due to several innovations. “We have some policies about how we’re going to be communicating with our donor hospitals and how the process will work, but we have embraced the TransMedics organ care system and NRP. That has really helped us to increase the number of hearts for transplant. Sometimes organs need a little extra help and a little extra push, and it is innovation that’s going to continue to allow us to meet the needs of the donor families and the recipients. It’s the right thing to do for everyone.”

Growth of CORE

When Stuart first joined CORE in 1987, there were six employees. Now the count stands at 185 and more growth in is the works. “Our board just approved hiring 71 more team members because of the growth of our organization,” says Stuart. “We listen to our team members and each of the different departments said they were at capacity. The senior leadership team did a drill down to look at our strategic plan and identified that if we wanted to achieve our goals, it was going to require more team members. Each department assessed what their needs would be in order to achieve those milestones.”

The CORE team is known for their commitment to the Baldridge Performance Excellence Framework, a comprehensive management approach that focuses on results in all areas, organizational and personal learning, and knowledge sharing. CORE is one of three organ procurement organizations to be named a Baldridge National Quality Award winner.

Stuart notes that CORE’s director of performance improvement and strategic plan is an engineer by background. “He brings a whole different mindset on how we need to engineer things to achieve our accomplishments. He sets up charters for our strategic plan projects so that we stay focused. It all comes back our Baldridge framework which is the basis for everything we do.”

In 2022, Stuart was one of 12 national leaders to receive a Baldridge Foundation Award for Leadership Excellence. In 2023, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations (AOPO) which she previously had served as president. She has served on several boards of directors, including Donate Life America and the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).

She serves on the advisory board of the Transplantation and Donation Sciences (TaDS) master’s degree program at The University of Toledo which is the only academic program in the United States that prepares students to become procurement transplant coordinators. CORE offers TaDS students a sponsorship in exchange for committing to work at CORE for three years and has 10 procurement coordinators who have completed the program on staff. The Alliance has a partnership with the program where current students and recent alumni have access to The Alliance’s online learning programs.

Stuart grew up in Darlington, Pennsylvania and received a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Duquesne University and a master’s degree in public management from Carnegie Mellon University. She began her career as a registered nurse in the trauma ICU at Allegheny General Hospital. In 1987, she joined CORE as an organ and tissue procurement coordinator, and over the next decade she rose to become the assistant executive director. She left CORE from 1999-2004 to serve as director of clinical operations at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In 2004, she returned to CORE as president and CEO.

She is married to Rich Pietroski, former CEO of Gift of Life Michigan, who was a leader with Lung Bioengineering. The joy of their lives is Maxie, their Bernedoodle, who goes everywhere with them. She loves to read and belongs to a book club.  They recently read Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus and are reading Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingslover next.

Stuart talks about the importance of her Roman Catholic faith and her recent work on her church’s envisioning committee for strategic planning. “There are times when this job is emotionally and physically very, very difficult. I couldn’t do it without my faith. How can we not be passionate about innovation? Because it leads to the next stage in transplant and gives us the opportunity to give that gift to more and more recipients.”

Stuart with husband Rich and dog Maxi
Stuart's dogs Ellie and Maxi
Stuart's dog Maxi
Stuart's dog Maxi
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