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Building professional relationships with Chara Stewart Abrams

Chara Abrams

As administrative director for the Department of Psychology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Chara Stewart Abrams ensures faculty can focus on patient care and research, rather than administrative and operational tasks.

Stewart Abrams joined St. Jude in 2011 when the department was just one year old.  As administrative director of a new department, she strengthened the infrastructure to improve operational efficiencies. Leading a team that supports the department has many challenges unique to the leading-edge research at St. Jude and the population it serves.

One of Stewart Abrams’ first projects was digitizing patient information that wasn’t included in the electronic health record, such as the raw data from assessments. Knowing it was too big a job to tackle alone, she convened a task force, working with clinicians and staff who use the records to approach the 1.5 million sheets of paper that needed scanning.  After initially working with a vendor to deal with the backlog,  Stewart Abrams now works with her team to maintain the procedures put in place to keep the digitized records updated, standardize the workflow and improve access to patient records.

This project, and Stewart Abrams’ approach to it, highlights a central tenant of her professional approach: building strong relationships.

“People can always tell whether you are genuinely invested in having a working relationship with them and solving problems that matter to them, or whether you’re just in it to accomplish your own goals or tell them what to do,” Stewart Abrams said. 

This is a lesson Stewart Abrams learned early in her career while working for a program called Children International at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The position required hands-on community engagement to connect elementary schools with health services, for example creating Arkansas’ first school-based dental clinic. From there, Stewart Abrams transitioned to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, where she directed the Cancer Control Outreach Center at the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute. This position was also community based, as she led cancer screenings and brought preventive care to areas in need across the state that addressed cancer disparities.

At the Cancer Control Outreach Center, Stewart Abrams reported to Ronda Henry-Tillman, MD, chief of Breast Oncology. Under the mentorship of Henry-Tillman, Stewart Abrams stepped into a variety of new situations and leadership opportunities.

“She empowered me to lead a variety of programs and initiatives, whatever needed to be done on any given day,” Stewart Abrams said. “These unfamiliar situations helped me grow and exposed me to new ideas.”

In addition to Henry-Tillman, Stewart Abrams cites her mother and grandmother as strong influences on her professional style. 

“Growing up, quitting wasn’t allowed unless I could articulate a good reason, and just because something was hard wasn’t a good reason,” Stewart Abrams said. “I definitely got my grit, my integrity, and my ability to persevere from them, but also their sense of compassion for people and desire to help.”

She also lists her supervisor Sean Phipps, PhD, Psychology chair, as a key figure in her success. Stewart Abrams says it is vital for women in health care or any other profession to have support from the organization’s leadership.

“Participating in the Leadership Squared program at St. Jude, getting involved in different committees, attending conferences and networking—it all requires the support of the hospital’s leaders, and I’ve been fortunate to have that here,” Stewart Abrams said. 

Stewart Abrams also serves as the Memphis chapter president of the National Association of Health Services Executives.  The organization allows her to partner with healthcare leaders locally and nationally to address healthcare disparities and improve diversity in the workforce.

Looking back over her eight years at St. Jude, Stewart Abrams said that perhaps the most important thing she could tell her younger self would be to let go of the fear of failure and help cultivate environments where it is safe to explore new opportunities and be your authentic self.  She views obstacles as opportunities and strives not to be perfect but purposeful.

“I’m the oldest child in my family, and the first to go to college, so there has always been tremendous pressure to do well,” she said. “But failure is basically a part of the process of success. If you're not learning from it, then you're not reaching high enough.”

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