Before she became the nursing director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) this past November, Kimberly (Cerrato) Whalen ’93 had already made significant contributions to her field.
Through a career in nursing that has spanned several decades, Whalen has cared for countless critically ill children; she was a pediatric clinical instructor at Curry College and the MGH IHP; she was the pediatric clinical content lead for Partners eCare; published peer-reviewed articles on informatics and pediatrics; served as a nurse reviewer for Harvard Medical School; and has worked to develop innovations for pediatric care as part of MassGeneral’s Pediatric Innovation Committee, through which she and her team have also been awarded multiple grants to develop an app to assist with pediatric infusions, along with a provisional patent.
Along with all of this, she’s been lauded by the MassGeneral team for her leadership through the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly at the beginning, when she guided the PICU through a temporary transformation into an adult intensive care unit.
A sociology major at MCLA from Plymouth, Mass., Whalen said she was drawn to nursing after working as a nursing assistant the summer after she graduated. She still keeps in touch with the friends she made at MCLA, and said that her sociology degree laid the ground for what would come next in her education and career. “I definitely am a people person,” she said. “I love taking care of and working with people.”
She went back to school to earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing, then spent years as a pediatric nurse, working weekend nights while she raised a family. She loved the flexibility nursing offered her; “You can be a nurse for 40 years and do all different kinds of things,” she said. “If you get tired of one thing, you can try something different. Working in the PICU kept me always wanting to learn—it keeps you always thinking.”
She discovered a passion for health informatics—the systems that power things like patient portals and electronic health records—while helping to build a new medical records system at MassGeneral. She ended up applying for a grant to study informatics and earned a master’s degree from the University of Colorado in 2014.
“MassGeneral is a special place,” Whalen said. “They provide a lot of opportunities for learning and growth, and it’s a very collaborative environment.”
One opportunity for innovation led her to have a hand in developing a medical device meant for blood transfers that now has a provisional patent, and which won a MassGeneral competition focused on medical innovations.
Whalen said pediatric nurses commonly find workarounds since most medical equipment is designed for adults. “I think we’re natural innovators,” she said. “It’s great MassGeneral is working with us to bring some of those ideas to fruition.”
When COVID hit and the PICU had to be transitioned into an adult ICU, Whalen’s experience and passion was put to the test again. Clad in full PPE—suits, masks, goggles—she and her staff kept a human connection, holding people’s hands in times of distress and vulnerability. The unit used iPads to let patients visit with their families and worked to keep in contact with their family members.
“It was amazing to see the teamwork. Everyone was so scared,” she said. “We didn’t know what we were dealing with, but everyone just jumped in and worked together. We’ve always done that…during the first wave of COVID, people were cheering and calling us heroes. It was great to get that acknowledgement, but it also felt weird, because, well, of course we are going to do that! That is what nurses do, we provide care to those in need.”
Whalen said her career has given her so much through her life—purpose, flexibility, the chance to learn new things and pass them on to others, the satisfaction of caring for patients. “Being able to help people through hard times is a very gratifying thing,” she said. “It has made me appreciate life and all the little things in life. It reminds you to enjoy everything you have. It gives you purpose and fills your soul.”