Nicole Schlechter, MD, PhD
Chief Medical Officer | Ascension Saint Thomas Hospital Midtown
President | Nashville Academy of Medicine
The daughter of immigrants, Nicole Schlechter was the first in her family to graduate from college. "I loved the sciences when I was growing up, and that Is what I excelled in at school, particularly the biological sciences," she recalled.
After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, she stayed on as a graduate student conducting research in comparative endocrinology. "It's humorous that I studied hormonal regulation of long bone growth since I'm five feet tall," Schlechter noted with a grin.
Completing her doctorate in three years, Schlechter said she would have continued on in the lab if not for her fiancée - now husband of 35 years - Ray Bluth, MD, who encouraged her to dream of medical school. "No one ever suggested I could, or should, be something else. He believed in me when no one before really had ... certainly, I had not," she said.
With a new goal and a fiancée bound for Nashville to attend Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Schlechter turned in her only medical school application and held her breath. "I got in and was given a scholarship that made it possible for me to attend. I am forever grateful for that," she said.
Always an advocate for women's issues, Schlechter found obstetrics and gynecology a great fit for her interests. Besides, she added, she instantly loved delivering babies. Despite long days, Schlechter noted, "You get someone through a pregnancy and hand them a baby - there is no other feeling like it." Even in the face of loss, she said there is a peace in helping families make it through an incredibly difficult time.
A founding partner of Women Obstetrics and Gynecology, she spent more than 25 years with the practice in direct patient care. Yet, she also found herself taking on increasing leadership roles at the hospital and in organized medicine. When the chief medical officer role came up at Ascension Saint Thomas Hospital Midtown, it felt like the natural next step.
Just months into her new position, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, bringing previously unimagined challenges to the role. "We basically had to close our hospital to visitors, shut down the ORs to all elective cases ... then reopen them, develop surge plans for everything from PPE to beds, staff and physicians, then start up a testing program and then a vaccine clinic," she enumerated. "We did all of that while trying to keep our associates and providers safe and happy." Although the pandemic was tumultuous for everyone, Schlechter noted, "If you can make it less horrible for someone, that's huge."
Now that some normalcy is returning, she's ready to tackle new challenges including exciting building projects that will enhance care, patient experience and workflows. In addition to her own hospital, she's also advocating for providers throughout Middle Tennessee as president of the Nashville Academy of Medicine.
"I would like to work towards increasing equity in medicine and medical leadership at all levels," she said. "I try to incorporate the issue into most everything I do." Addressing burnout is another key issue. "I want to bring the joy back into practicing hospital medicine," Schlechter noted. "When providers love and can focus on patient care, everybody wins."
Calling on her California upbringing, Schlechter said she is a long-time proponent of self-care to find balance. Her happy place comes from hiking with her husband and their three dogs. The couple also share an eclectic palate and love trying out new restaurants and enjoying great dinners with friends.
Growing up in a home where English was a second language and money was tight, Schlechter doesn't take the life she and Bluth have built for granted. It's her fervent hope that every child gets a shot at making their dreams come true.
"My mother was a single mom who raised me and my sister with Social Security, food stamps and minimal income. I am profoundly grateful for the opportunities that have been given to me because of the compassion that the people of this country showed my parents and the grants and scholarships that made it possible for me to get educated," Schlechter concluded. "I feel that I have not squandered what was given to us. I think about this every day, and I hope ... more than anything ... that other children in similar circumstances today can be offered similar opportunities."