More than once, Mary Ann Nash has reinvented herself. The third time, or maybe it was the fourth or fifth – truth be told, she's stopped counting – she became someone she'd never imagined: the detail maven in the design of Lawrence + Memorial's new state-of-the-art Cancer Center in Waterford.
Quite a sidestep from her everyday duties as an L+M dietician, and miles and miles from where her working life began, as a 16-year-old dancer in the New York City Ballet's corps de ballet.
A pirouette that wrecked her knee during a performance of George Balanchine's "Emeralds" began the series of career transformations. Yet another detour, albeit slight, came late last year. But here, at L+M's Cancer Center – "My office looks like a tornado hit it," she says in apology, threading her way along a labyrinthine corridor to a small alcove room – here, the topic is the two years leading up to the Center's October 2013 opening. Two extremely busy, extremely challenging years.
"I was really scared," she says, recalling that giant step. "I was scared because it was so foreign to me. I never thought I'd be worried about the lights. Or the garbage cans in a room. Or that there were a number of bathrooms that were 'staff' or 'not staff.'"
Which begs the question: Why choose a dietician to be "clinical lead" on such a project?
Lauren Williams, L+M's Vice President of Patient Care Services and the person who made that choice, has the answer: "Mary Ann's a multi-talented person, and her leadership skills are terrific. She helped so many people find their voice. Mary Ann had her hand in all the roles within the project." She pauses for a moment, adds: "Anything I say will not come close to describing her."
Nash has a humbler view: "Lauren Williams took a chance on me. I'm pretty tenacious . . . I just have that kind of drive."
It's the kind of drive that kicked in even though her first reaction to an initial planning session was admittedly skeptical. The kind of drive that drove her father, a Sicilian immigrant who never got past the 8th grade, to succeed in business, risky business, during the Great Depression.
"He never believed in mediocre, and neither did my mother," she says. "You excelled or you didn't do it."
Her parents' exacting standards still live in her. And so do they, a never-the-twain-shall-meet couple if ever there was one. But the twain did meet. At a speakeasy. Her maternal grandfather owned it. Her father sold to it.
"My father – I hate to say this – was a bootlegger during Prohibition," she says and smiles a fond smile. "He was 60 when I was born. My mother was 30 years younger. She'd attended the New York School of Interior Design."
They were yin and yang, her father short and heavy-set, her mother a lithe 5-foot-10 beauty. Both were strong-willed and determined. Their daughter no less so.
"When I get something in my mind," she says, "I'm not only going to make sure it succeeds, I'm going to make sure it succeeds 100 percent."
It was that mindset that led her into the three-day Cancer Center planning session, which she now views as a brilliant approach, one that brought together voices, opinions, suggestions, from 40 or so disparate areas, including nine patient advocates. "When we say, 'It takes a village,' this is the building of a village," Nash says. "It's about every single person, every single person in this building."
Nash was the villager who attended every meeting, from
preliminary to final, and listened to the suggestions of every participating doctor, nurse, aide, secretary, janitor, architect, patient, et al. There were clashes, for sure, but eventually the group reached consensus. Nash tends to downplay her role in it all.
"It's been an eye-opening experience, and it's given me an absolute renewed respect for everyone," she says. "All I was, was a conduit, really, to make sure it all happened."
Brenda Bullied begs to differ.
"Mary Ann is a phenomenal person and a great person to work with," says Bullied, L+M's Director of Facilities Planning and Innovation and the Cancer Center's overall project manager. "She was actively involved from beginning to end. She never stops, she's a go-getter. She does everything – big, small, whatever."
Nash was central to virtually every equipment decision made, selecting towel holders, toilet paper rolls, wastebaskets, coffee makers, ice machines, wall clocks, mirrors, CT scan machines, furniture and on and on. A major concern involved infusion chairs, the chairs for patients getting chemotherapy. Patients were the major decision-makers, testing 20 chair types. The chair of choice was La-Z-boy, a recliner equipped with built-in heat and massage.
And as much as patients wanted comfort during treatments, they also wanted privacy, a fervent request that translated into separate treatment bays, with a communal room to which they could retreat if they chose to. The work was intense. Combined with her dietician's role, it kept Nash on her toes for upwards of 60 hours a week.
Years earlier, when her knee injury, an ACL tear, took her from dance, she returned to high school and a home economics course that one day, happily, brought a dietician to class. Nash was hooked, and so began her first career reinvention.
The transition into nutrition appealed, she says, because "it's not blood and guts. ... as much as I love science and chemistry, I knew couldn't do the physician part of it. I knew I wanted to heal people. And even way, way, way back then, I knew that what you put into your body had a huge impact, not only on longevity but on how you're gonna live out that longevity. And the cancer piece of it allows me to kind of look at both sides. I look at how I can make somebody feel better while they're having cancer treatment, but more importantly, on this side, I can look at what I can do, so maybe they never have to cross this door."
Her initial focus was diabetes education, much of it working with, as she says, "a lot of Type 1s, a lot of kids who died within 16, 17 years." The switch to cancer patients, another transition, came after a divorce and a move to Connecticut 12 years ago.
"When I came here, I reinvented myself, primarily because I wanted to do prevention," she says. "I am absolutely convinced that your lifestyle impacts all three major diseases – cancer, heart disease and diabetes. So what we do here in early prevention, in terms of diet and of exercise, makes a huge difference. And nobody will ever convince me otherwise.
"Mother Nature has taught us very well what we need…and how to use it. The body knows how to take real fat, real protein, real carbohydrates and it knows how to digest it, metabolize it, use it and glean from it. It doesn't know how to take pre-packaged McDonald's hamburger, ground up, and draw nutrition from it. When you give your body the right tools, it makes it very happy and it does right by us."
And Nash, in her reinvention as clinical lead, did right by all involved, which led to her current reinvention: She divides her time, 20 hours a week seeing patients, 20 hours in a quasi-administrative role as support for day-to-day operations.
Weekends? They're for the dogs, and cats, and one bearded dragon. And the occasional gerbil or hedgehog or Vietnamese pig, all of which have boarded, at some point, at Nash's Red Rock Kennel in North Stonington.
"This is Poison," Nash says on a sunny Saturday morning, introducing the spiny-scaled lizard who loves worms and kale and collard greens and hates Romaine lettuce and loud noises. For Poison, the radio is usually tuned to 95.5 because he seems to find classical music soothing.
Sliding into kennel ownership five years ago was another of Nash's self-reinventions. This one though, was not a huge departure from her days breeding show dogs.
"It's my way of relaxing," she says of the kennel. "Lots of people think I'm crazy. But it's my respite. The kennel just takes me away. I don't think about cancer."
Poison scrabbles halfway along a log and stares out through his terrarium – lovingly, it almost seems – at Nash. He's been here more than a year; he's practically family. His owner went to California, thinking she'd return soon but that didn't happen, and shipping him west, even via Fed Ex, is too risky. He seems quite sanguine about it all.
The same might describe the rest of the kennel's temporary population. The cages in the adjacent cat room are empty; the cats prefer to meander and socialize. Shadow, long-haired and ink-black, winds around Nash's blue-jeaned ankle, perhaps prompting Stubby, a grey tiger, to vault onto a tabletop and nuzzle her shoulder. Grey-and white Slinky perches on a window sill, content to observe.
Next door, Chelsea, a chocolate Lab, and Timmy, a Bernese mountain dog, greet Nash's arrival loudly, sparking a chorus of woofs and arfs and haroos and yaps from both sides of the room. The dogs are penned – "not all dogs like one another" was a lesson she learned early – but there's a dog run just outside, and exercise is a significant part of the daily routine.
Dogs, she says, are "unconditional love," with the occasional momentary exception. It's a point of pride with Nash that she's always been good with tough, aggressive dogs. Her worst-ever bite came from a terrified cat, her second worst from a chihuahua.
The division of labor, hospital and kennel, yin and yang, suits her well.
"My high heels during the week and my sneakers on the weekend," she says. "It's a balance for me."
Just now, just here, Nash can't foresee another reinvention for herself.
I will never leave nutrition," she says. "Nutrition will always be my heart and soul because I'm so convinced of the impact we can make in people's lives."