“This isn’t about me,” said Deborah Grimes, RN, JD, Chief Diversity Officer of UAB’s Health System, discussing the impact her 30-year career at UAB has left on others and the institution as a whole. “Having the right core mission – helping other people – makes sure that everything falls into place.”

Grimes stepped into the newly-created role of Health System Chief Diversity Officer in 2017: the most recent move in an astronomical career arc that spanned nearly 3 decades at UAB. With an eye toward continual growth, an expansive curiosity, and a dedication to patient care, Grimes has achieved excellence in numerous fields over the course of her career.

Deborah GrimesGrowing up in Anniston, Alabama, Grimes had no notion of rising to the highest levels of health care administration. With parents who worked in sales, and a brother who would ultimately serve a full career in the military, she had no early exposure to the health professions. As a young girl, she considered psychiatry, because, as she put it, “I love people, and people seemed to always have felt comfortable confiding in me.” 

But medical school didn’t seem like the best fit, and as she began considering her college options, she relied a decision-making factor that she admits would appall her today. She was dating a young man who planned on going into the military as an engineer, and she thought if she was going to be an officer’s wife she needed to pick a profession that would cross borders.

Nursing seemed to her like the obvious choice. She applied to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and was admitted. The romantic relationship with the young man didn’t last – but the commitment to nursing did. And, Grimes said, “I fell in love with UAB.” She felt a deep and meaningful connection to nursing.

During Grimes’ OB/GYN rotation in nursing school, a transformative experience steered her toward labor and delivery. The charge nurse asked her to stay with a laboring mother for a moment, and, while waiting for the charge nurse and the doctor to return, the baby was born unexpectedly. Grimes remembers the mother pushing and the baby emerging into her hands. “It was a wonderful experience,” Grimes said. “I was hooked. How could you not want to do that?”

The charge nurse was so impressed with the student’s calm and confident demeanor under pressure that she told Grimes she would have a job when she finished nursing school – and she wasn’t exaggerating. After graduating from nursing school in 1986, Grimes started work in the labor and delivery department of UAB hospital.  

“It was a love affair from the start,” Grimes said. “I loved everything about nursing.”

She had been doing clinical work for a few years when she was pulled into a fledgling research program, a new initiative where nurses partnered with physicians to pursue grant-funded research related to maternal and family medicine. The combination of Grimes’ clinical interest, research interest, and passion for patient care informed her subsequent decision to begin law school in 1990. Risk management and quality control were issues that were growing in importance, not only in the medical community as a whole, but in Grimes’ perceptions and experiences as well. Getting a law degree seemed like the next step in advancing both UAB’s mission, and Grimes’ as well.

It was during her first year of law school that Grimes met the man she would ultimately marry. “He fell in love with a woman who was working full time and going to law school,” Grimes said. “He’s always known me to be juggling 2-3 things. We developed a great partnership – he’s very supportive of me loving to explore a lot of different interests. He’s allowed me the space to change what I do. Every time I’m ready to change, he changes with me.”

Grimes and her husband would ultimately have two children, a son and a daughter, while she was pursuing a new career path made possible through her legal education. She spent three years working for Patricia Pritchett in the UAB General Counsel’s office, and then shifted to working in risk management. In total, Grimes spent 9 years working in the legal field at UAB.

Working in risk management, Grimes said, was in many ways her dream job. But she was also excited when she was recruited back the hospital to direct the joint commission of regulatory services, followed by a promotion to administrative director of quality and regulatory services.

As a nurse, Grimes saw, she could create positive experiences for patients and their families. But working in administration allowed her to increase her impact by influencing policies, practices and procedures that impacted many patients and their families.  

“The reason I got into health care in the first place, and the reason I stayed in health care for 30 years,” Grimes said, “is because I feel like it’s really important to society to deliver excellent health care. My core principle is that the citizens of Alabama deserve excellent care, and I’m going to do my part.” She felt that as one person, she was able to be effective, but found that through assembling the right team of ten people they could be twenty or thirty times more effective than they could have been individually. 

After filling the roll of administrative director of quality and regulatory services for a few years, Grimes was promoted again – this time to the position of Chief Compliance Officer. Her time in administration, she said, was a “wonderful” experience, allowing her to interface with individuals over a broad range of silos. 

Her role as Chief Compliance Officer came with an additional dimension: she now acted as a representative of the diversity program. Over time, this work grew into a passion project. From Mona Fouad, M.D., MPH, Senior Associate Dean for Diversity & Inclusion for the UAB School of Medicine, she learned about the potential for diversity and inclusion programming. 

When Health System CEO Will Ferniany, Ph.D., made the decision to create the position of chief diversity officer, Grimes was tapped to help create the job description. As she crafted the language, she realized that not only was this a job that she could perform – it was a job that she wanted to perform. She indicated her interest to Jean Ann Larson, Ph.D., MBA UAB School of Medicine and UAB Health System’s Leadership Development Officer, who encouraged her to apply.

“Eleven interviews later,” Grimes laughed, “I got the job.”

Grimes notes that she’s experienced nearly every aspect of UAB over her career. “It’s a testament to UAB that you can spend your whole career here, and learn different things,” she said. 

She’s experienced many notable successes, including receiving the Alabama Quality Award when she worked in quality control, and several successful OIG audits during her time as compliance officer. Most recently, her diversity program was highlighted by Vizient – a key accomplishment for a relatively new diversity program.

For those considering following in her career footsteps, Grimes advises: “Seek out those opportunities that overlap what you want to do with what the organization seeks to have done. If you go for the jobs the organization wants you to go for, but you’re not passionate about, you’re going to be miserable. And if you only pursue those things that you’re passionate about, but that the organization doesn’t need, you’re going to fail. Where those two things intersect is the sweet spot.”