SJA alumna Dr. Claire Jurkowski, '66, devotes her life to a career in medicine as a way to assist those most in need
SJA alumna Dr. Claire Jurkowski, '66, devotes her life to a career in medicine as a way to assist those most in need

Dr. Claire Jurkowski, '66, has had a varied career experience as a physician that is nonetheless marked by the consistent themes of personal perseverance and interpersonal support. The supporters in Jurkowski's life are numerous, and have helped her along the way as she found her calling and navigated a successful career. She explained, "I believe that to whom much is given, much is expected."

Jurkowski's story begins on Milwaukee's South Side where she was born and raised. She is the oldest of three and was quick to point out, "I'm not bossy, I just know best!"

Her family made education a primary focus and stressed its importance throughout Jurkowski's childhood.

"Our house was always full of books. At our local library, we knew every book on the shelf," she recalled. "I found myself drawn to books having anything to do with illness, doctors/nurses, healthcare heroes like Dr. Tom Dooley...by the time I was in grade school I was convinced I wanted to become a doctor."

She attended St. Anthony grade school and the expectation was that she would also attend a Catholic high school.

"My parents felt that it was the best that was available at the time," said Jurkowski.

While Jurkowski and her family considered many options, it was a personal note that set St. Joan Antida High School (SJA) apart from the others.

"I remember receiving a handwritten note from Sister Alfreda Scurti, the first Principal of SJA, inviting me and my family to come and visit this small, all-girls school," Jurkowski recalled.

Upon the family's visit to SJA, Jurkowski found the small environment to be suitable to her shy disposition.

"The Sisters were so warm and open and caring. It just felt like, SJA is where I'm supposed to be," said Jurkowski.

To help with the SJA tuition, Jurkowski sought and received a scholarship from her parish.

"My Dad was an apprentice tool and die maker and my Mom was a homemaker. To this day, I don't know what sacrifices they made to send me to Catholic school, with two younger siblings in the family, but I am forever grateful for it," said Jurkowski.

SJA represented a step towards Jurkowski' s future. The school was everything the young 13-year old needed to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.

"From the time I was old enough to think about my future, I wanted to be a doctor. And the quality of an SJA education – you couldn't beat it to help me prepare for my physician path," she said. At SJA, she excelled in English and writing, and was editor of the school newspaper, The Joanette. At graduation, she was awarded an English medal.

"Graduating from SJA, I had no difficulty transitioning into a college level of work. We came out of SJA prepared to meet the world," remembered Jurkowski.

After graduating from SJA, Jurkowski went on to attend the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee for her undergraduate degree, followed by Michigan State University for medical school, and North Carolina Baptist Hospital for her residency.

Jurkowski's time in college and medical school was marked by the same persistence and remarkable support as her time at SJA. Her first year at UWM, she cleaned cafeteria tables and trays; her second year, she got a job as a nursing assistant at Columbia Hospital.

"One year, I bathed patients in the morning, went to school during the day, and came back from seven to ten at night to give back rubs, change sheets, and help patients go to bed. But the Director of Nursing was so supportive – I can't say enough," she recalled.

She even received support in the mail from kind friends and important role models.

"In medical school, family friends and even a past teacher would periodically send a dollar or some stamps. I would randomly get envelopes with cash to help with expenses. I still look back in amazement at the support I received," Jurkowski said.

This support was vital to her varied career as a physician, which has taken her across the country to work with patients with AIDS, develop geriatric care programs, and lead drug safety efforts at pharmaceutical companies. The common theme throughout her career has been service to others.

After working in the Veteran's Hospital in Asheville, NC for several years, she headed North to Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia. At the time, in the mid-80s, it was one of only two medical practices in the city treating men with AIDS.

"Other practices did not want to deal with this terrible epidemic. People were terrified and didn't know what to do," she recalled.

Her time there ended when the university took over the practice, which left the physicians jobless.

"People don't think of doctors as losing jobs, but if you work for a program and the program goes, you're at risk," she said. This transition led her to complete a fellowship in geriatric medicine, and obtain her first geriatric position in New Jersey.

"One of my contacts in Philadelphia recommended me for a medical director position in New Jersey at a community hospital," she said. "I got the job as a director of a program that didn't exist yet."

Again, relying on the help of others, Jurkowski found a way to use her talents to help those in need. Working with an enthusiastic multidisciplinary team, the program grew to include a broad array of services for the elderly, including a Geriatric Assessment Program serving those with dementia. This program included clinical research on drugs being tested for Alzheimer's disease, which is what opened the door to her entering the pharmaceutical industry later on in her career.

But once again, a new administration changed the focus of the hospital, and the geriatric program was discontinued.

"Any experience of mine that has ended outside of my control has led to something new and more interesting. Whenever one door closes, another opens. You just need to take a deep breath and see what's around the corner," she said.

What she found around this corner was the opportunity to continue working with the elderly by doing house calls and hospice care for several years, and finally the realization that although she was not ready to give up medicine entirely, it was time to move away from seeing patients.

Jurkowski's path eventually led her to her ten-year career in the pharmaceutical industry.

"Even though I wouldn't be seeing patients directly, I would still be using my clinical expertise in helping lots of patients who relied on medications for their health," said Jurkowski.

She entered the field of pharmacovigilance (drug safety), which she described as "the conscience of the drug industry." Jurkowski led multiple teams in ensuring the safety of drugs through assessing drug benefits and risks, preparing safety reports, creating processes for quality improvement, and mentoring and training scientists and physicians to help ensure drug safety.

"You become a doctor to help people," Jurkowski stated. Although her career has been varied, it has consistently focused on that goal.

Jurkowski retired in 2015, and has continued that theme of helping others. She currently tutors at Rowan College of Burlington County in anatomy, physiology, microbiology, and English as a Second Language.

"I'm back to being an editor, just like in high school," she laughed.

Jurkowski's path from SJA to medical school, and through a winding and varied career as a physician, has consistently aimed toward her goal of helping others. She too has received tremendous support from others along the way, helping to make her goal a reality.

"My career has been satisfying and rewarding, and it's been a way for me to pay it forward for future generations," she said.

Reflecting on how SJA translated into her professional career, Jurkowski noted that as a physician, you never stop learning; and SJA reinforced that value for her early on.

"There was an emphasis on pushing yourself, going beyond average, and striving. And they made it fun," she said of her time at SJA. "Because of the Sisters at SJA, I had the confidence to take the next step. And the next step. And the next step. That continued on for me for my entire career."

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