Shelly Schwedhelm: Leading from out front

There have been two defining moments in Shelly Schwedhelm’s career. One of those moments wasn’t hers alone; it thrust Nebraska Medicine and UNMC onto the global stage. 

The journey to get there began on a farm near Pender, Nebraska, where Schwedhelm learned the value of hard work and determination. Those values served her well during her time at Methodist School of Nursing, where she attended with her husband, Kevin, while working and raising their first child. 

"We’d be studying for exams and hand off the baby so the other could study," she recalled. "Our classmates would offer to help, too." 

The determination paved the way for what can only be described as a remarkable 40-year career. It began in 1982, when Schwedhelm was hired as a nurse in the emergency department of University Hospital. During those first few years, Schwedhelm also worked as a flight nurse for Skymed and was part of a mobile unit that responded to three-alarm fires or transported patients between hospitals.

Desiring management experience, she left the emergency department for the post-anesthesia care unit, and it wasn’t too long after that when the OR director position opened, leading to one of her defining moments. Initially on an interim basis, Schwedhelm was asked to run the OR and the PACU. 

"After a few months, I said, ‘Do you just want to give me the job?’" she recalled. 

It proved to be a very demanding job. 

"Running an OR is not easy," she said. "You’re essentially running a multimillion-dollar operation with zero room for error. You have to have the right people in the right place with the right instruments. Everything has to come together perfectly multiple times a day."

She was there as cases transitioned from surgical to laparoscopic to robotic, leading to the first daVinci robot surgery

The ED came calling again, and Schwedhelm led the way through the merger of Clarkson and University Hospitals’ emergency departments and perioperative services areas, once the Hixson-Lied Center was complete.

"It was a very difficult time," she said. "It was a clash of the cultures. Everyone thought they were going to lose something."

In addition to that challenge, Schwedhelm was tasked with getting the Hixson-Lied Center ready. The building included a new emergency department, OR suites, pre-op, PACU and sterile processing. Years later, she was given infection control, trauma and emergency management. When the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit transitioned to her a year after opening, she assumed leadership of that, as well.

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Shelly Schwedhelm, executive director of emergency preparedness and infectious diseases for Nebraska Medicine and executive director of emergency management and clinical operations at the UNMC Global Center for Health Security, speaks at a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then came Ebola in 2014 and the second of Schwedhelm’s defining moments. 

"There were people who needed us," she said. "You have to practice; you have to prepare. That’s what we did for years. We practiced, we educated. If we hadn’t put in all that work to prepare, it would’ve been a different story to tell. We knew one mishap could result in the demise of one of our people. Phil (Smith), MD, and I said, ‘We are 100% behind doing this. If we don’t say yes, everything we’ve done for the last nine years would be for nothing. If not us, who?’

"But that doesn’t mean we didn’t spend many hours agonizing if we made the right decision. In the end, we had confidence in our preparation. There was a lot of joy in doing it, too."

Ironically, Schwedhelm had been considering other positions in the organization right before Ebola.

"I realized I was right where I needed to be, where God wanted me to be," she said.

From there, Schwedhelm’s responsibilities focused on infection control, emergency management and biopreparedness, "the gift that kept giving," she joked. She also serves as executive director of the Global Center for Health Security. 

And to be sure, Schwedhelm and the GCHS team knew about COVID-19 before most. The med center accepted evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February 2020.

Among countless other efforts, Schwedhelm led efforts to create lifesaving safety information for schools and workplaces across the country.

"The state, the country and the world, frankly, have much to thank her for," said Paul Baltes, Nebraska Medicine's director of communications. 

"Shelly Schwedhelm is truly a national treasure, and Nebraska Medicine has been incredibly lucky to have her as part of our community for 40 years," said James Lawler, MD, an associate professor in the division of infectious diseases and director of international programs and innovation for the UNMC Global Center for Health Security. "Whether it is leading national meetings developing standards for managing the risk of high-consequence infections or leading an assistance team helping a local homeless shelter implement better COVID-19 protocols, Shelly is always on the front line of health emergencies."

Dr. Lawler added: "Shelly’s focus on the practical issues at hand, her incredible work ethic, and her can-do attitude are exactly what one would expect from a Nebraska farm girl and nurse. And as accomplished as she is, Shelly’s earnestness continues to inspire. With Shelly, it is always about completing the mission and serving others — it is never about herself.

"I hope we have Shelly as an active part of our community for another 40 years, and I wish we had 40 more Shellys. Of course, there is only one Shelly Schwedhelm, and lucky for us, she is on our team."

Said Schwedhelm, "People ask me, what do you desire to do? Nothing. I have achieved everything I’d ever wanted to do. And of course, it’s not been on my own. Safely caring for patients with Ebola, COVID-19 or running an OR, you need a great team. Nobody does this by themselves."

In looking back over the last 40 years, she said her leadership style kept her away from a desk.

"I was always out on a unit or in the community," she said. "Being hands-on, connecting with people, brought me a lot of joy." 

She said one of her top Gallup strengths is "activator."

"It’s a strength I have to manage," she said. "But I’ve always been action-oriented. I can walk into a room and see what needs to be done, how to create safer policies to mitigate risk."

"Shelly displays all the strengths of an exceptional leader," said Julie Lazure, vice president of operations for Nebraska Medicine. "She demonstrates courage and confidence to face the toughest challenges, while always remaining calm and thoughtful. I always say, 'If there is any type of crisis, you want Shelly on your team.' Her expertise and skill have been a tremendous asset to our health system. Congratulations on 40 years of service."

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Shelly Schwedhelm speaks to Fox News during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though Schwedhelm works hard, part of her philosophy is to "never miss a bleacher moment" as a parent, and she’s tried to be as flexible as possible with her team in this philosophy. 

As for retirement, she said, "That’s definitely on the agenda, but a couple of years away."

Her husband now is a full-time farmer/rancher outside of Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, after spending most of his career in nursing leadership. Married for 42 years, the two have four children and 10 grandchildren. They love to travel, trail ride and camp in a state park.

On her whiteboard in her office, Schwedhelm has a list of 10 grants she’s overseeing, totaling $10 million, which doesn’t include UNMC grants. There's also a quote written by Rachel Hollis:

"God has perfect timing and it’s highly possible that by not being where you thought you should be, you will end up exactly where you’re meant to go."


  1. Lisa Runco says:

    Shelly is, and always has been, THE BEST.

  2. Karen Stiles says:

    A great model for our hospital society!! Thank you, Shelly, for your leader ship!

  3. Nizar Mamdani says:

    What a great story if your hard work and dedication. Congratulations l, Shelly

  4. Beth Beam says:

    Congratulations Shelly. Grateful for all your support over the years from our research projects in the NBU to your attention to details for our individual team members. Quite a milestone.

  5. John Hauser says:

    Shelly is a true leader, and it is great to work with her on the team. She has taken the emergency preparedness program beyond where it needs to be, so we are prepared for the future.

  6. Audrey Paulman says:

    A heartfelt congratulations, Shelly. You are so helpful—-many times, without even knowing it. You are just that good. Thanks.

  7. Tom O’Connor says:

    Great story on a great lady. What a career!

  8. Kelly Robertson says:

    She's an amazing person!

  9. Harold M Maurer says:

    Sherry Schwedhelm took on the most difficult tasks and did them effortlessly, to the benefit of UNMC and the State of Nebraska. She was a staunch people person, who you could count on to do the job professionally. Hal Maurer

  10. Sarah Gloden Carlson says:

    Congratulations, Shelly! Thank you for all you have done for UNMC and NM!

  11. Marlene Novotny says:

    Thank you for your dedication and tireless efforts to make our city, our country and our world a better place!

  12. Shannon Becker says:

    Congratulations, Shelly! We are so grateful to have your wisdom and experience helping guide the GCHS through new and ever-evolving challenges.

  13. Julio Lara says:

    Congratulations Shelly!!

  14. Lisa Hug says:

    Congratulations, Shelly, on 40 years at the Med Center! It was a pleasure to work with you on the University Auxiliary Board. Quite an inpressive career. Wishing you the best for the future, and a wonderful retirement.

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