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2023 UIC College of Nursing Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award winner Heading link

Karen Sikorski

Karen Sikorski, MS, BSN ’68, APRN, was working as a clinical nurse specialist at Rockford Memorial Hospital in the 1970s when the hospital began introducing patient-controlled analgesia.

Hospital staff were only given a 15-minute in-service training by the company that manufactured the devices – not nearly enough time, Sikorski recalls, to master the new technology, which allowed patients to release pain medication with a handheld button.

“It’s so much more involved than 15 minutes of education,” Sikorski says.

Sikorski, who was charged with managing the hospital roll-out, created a team, including pharmacists, technicians and nurses to provide additional education and training. With an anesthesiologist, she co-created a new “pain service” at the hospital and was invited to attend a national seminar with nurses from across the country involved in patient-controlled analgesia.

Shortly after, the American Society for Pain Management Nursing (ASPMN) spawned to create a network for nurses working in the new specialty, and Sikorski became the second president.

Sikorski, a 2023 UIC College of Nursing Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award winner, has remained active in both the national organization and the Midwest chapter.

“She has been instrumental in the development of guidelines and protocols that have become a “gold standard” for the management of pain throughout the US,” wrote Marsha Stanton, past president of ASPMN.

Nursing roots

Sikorski grew up on a farm in Chadwick, a small town in northwestern Illinois. Her early exposure to nursing came from her mother, who was also a nurse, and taking care of the cattle and other animals on the farm.

“My first injections were on pigs,” she says.

Sikorski attended Illinois State University for one year before transferring to UIC. On her breaks from school, she worked as a nursing assistant on the same floor as her mom on a medical-surgical unit in Freeport, Illinois.

“Going from the farm to the city was a big jump for me,” Sikorski recalls. “What really influenced me was the multiculturalism and the diversity. In a small, rural community, you don’t have that.”

After graduating from UIC Nursing, she took a nursing job in Rockford and never left. She worked as an instructor at Rockford Memorial Hospital School of Nursing and an assistant professor at Rock Valley College. With a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University, she landed a job as clinical nurse specialist, a new role at the time, that allowed her to combine education, research, quality control and practice.

She developed a specialty in pain and palliative care, first at Rockford Memorial Hospital, then at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center. She and Howard Weiss, MD, introduced curriculum to teach UIC medical students in Rockford about pain management.

Sikorski took on leadership positions at ASPMN and regional organizations, planning conferences, leading trainings and writing standards for pain management. She recalled her “shock” when a staffer from the White House called her at work so that Bill and Hillary Clinton could write a letter for the opening ceremonies of an ASPNM conference.

“I had opportunities that I never, ever dreamt of as a young person,” Sikorski says. “I have always felt nursing was my gift and mission. I owe so much to my colleagues and opportunities through the years.”

Sikorski is retired from full-time nursing, but serves as board president of Serenity Hospice and Home and continues to be involved with ASPMN and Northern Illinois Pain Resource Nurse Consortium. She’s also involved in a nurse honor corps, attending the funerals of nurses to honor them, and volunteers to cuddle NICU babies.

“UIC taught us to be leaders,” she says. “They encouraged that leadership role. To be a professional, you needed to be part of the profession and you needed to help that profession.”