Suzanne Freemans first job was as a staff nurse at Charlotte Memorial Hospital in 1975.
Twenty-five years later, she rose to be president of the same hospital, renamed Carolinas Medical Center.
By then, Freeman was part of a tight-knit group of leaders mostly men who had transformed Charlottes largest hospital from a dismal charity institution to a highly respected regional medical center.
With an MBA from Queens College, she had armed herself with the business credentials needed to match resumes and knowledge with executives trained in hospital finance and administration.
But she never tried to be one of the guys.
And she never forgot her roots. Patient care, not business.
She didnt need to resort to meanness or a steel edge, said Martha Whitecotton, a nurse who followed in Freemans footsteps. She was very comfortable being who she was.
She came from the very heart of this hospital. A staff nurse. She has always been very close to the people who do the work at the bedside.
Whitecotton, president of Levine Childrens Hospital at CMC, spoke last week as she mourned the loss of her friend, mentor and boss.
Freeman, 59, died May 26, almost a year and a half after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow.
She had a stem cell transplant and chemotherapy at the Mayo Clinic in June 2011, and that put the cancer in remission, according to posts on her Caring Bridge site.
When her cancer became active again earlier this year, Freeman wrote that the transplant did not give me the long response that I hoped for, but she expressed confidence in her medical team.
Even with a rearview mirror, I would not have made any different decisions to date. I believe I have had the best treatment and science known.
She died at home in Charlotte and is survived by her husband, their three children and two grandchildren, her parents and four siblings.
Paul Franz, a Carolinas HealthCare System executive who had been Freemans mentor, said she continued working, when she wasnt in treatment, and faced her illness with determination and dignity.
He recalled Freemans strength of character and her ability to go toe-to-toe with angry or difficult physicians. She was a good listener, Franz said, and she knew the meaning of patient-centered care before it became fashionable.
Doctors and nurses respected her for the clinical experience she brought to the administrative suite.
On the Caring Bridge site, a Charlotte doctors wife wrote that her husband always voiced the utmost respect for Suzanne as she had a nurses heart and the patients best interest in mind when it came to decision-making.
Watching Freeman with patients was a lesson in compassion, Whitecotton said. She could walk in a room and put a patient at ease. She always touched them, took their hand, and looked them in the eye. You could see patients relax in her presence.
As a patient herself, Freeman was gracious, as always. When Whitecotton visited Freemans room at CMC, she would act like you were the only person in the world she ever wanted to see. She was always a lady.
The care Freeman received at CMC was tender, respectful and compassionate, Whitecotton said A great testimony to what she built.