Suzanne Freeman

News | 2 months ago

From Staff Nurse to the Hospital President: Becoming the First Female President of Carolinas Medical Center

Suzanne Freeman’s meteoric rise through Charlotte’s leading health care system made history when she became the first woman to lead what’s now Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center. She credited her faith and her family for her success.

From her days growing up in Winston-Salem, Suzanne Freeman was always destined to lead. She often played nurse as a child, and as the oldest of five children, she was always in charge of the game. She grew up watching her grandmother take care of other family members and always felt drawn to health care. As a teenager, she worked as a nursing assistant and never looked back. 

Her faith was incredibly important to her and she even taught Sunday school at her church. Suzanne always said her experience growing up in a spiritual environment, being a wife and mother helped prepare her for her role as the first female president of Carolinas Medical Center. 

Suzanne started in the nursing program at the University of North Carolina Charlotte in just the second year of its existence. She excelled and after graduating in 1975, accepted a position at Charlotte Memorial Hospital (now Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center) on a medical and surgical floor. Six months later, she was promoted into a nurse leadership role. 

Over the years, Suzanne rose through the ranks of nursing within Carolinas Medical Center, eventually becoming the hospital’s Chief Nursing Executive and then a Vice President. During this time, she also went back to school, earning a Master of Business Administration degree from Queens College in 1991. She and her husband, John, also raised three children. 

In 2000 Suzanne was promoted to President of Carolinas Medical Center, serving as the Chief Executive Officer. It was the first time a woman had ever held that role. At the time, she called it “the best job in the whole world.” 

Like many women, Suzanne worked to navigate the balance between her most important role, as a mother, with a challenging career in her role as the leader of the premiere hospital in the greater Charlotte region. She once told a group of students at the Harlan E. Boyles Distinguished CEO Lecture Series at Appalachian State University, that the dichotomy of these two parts of herself contributed to her success. 

“I was balancing my natural temperament with the challenges of motherhood in the evenings and on weekends,” she said, “and by day the focus on business and relationship challenges commensurate with our ever-changing health care industry kept me challenged.”

Suzanne believed in the importance of education, passion and integrity. She was a staunch advocate for women and was passionate about developing younger women in leadership roles During her career, she inspired and mentored nurses and hospital leaders alike, leaving a lasting legacy of commitment to the highest quality of care as well as commitment to advancing the health care profession. She even inspired her youngest daughter to take on a career in health care. Kathryn Freeman Corn, PT, DPT, is a doctor of physical therapy who works at Atrium Health Mercy as a bedside physical therapist. 

“My mother was truly an amazing mother, leader and role model,” Corn said. “I am so proud of the legacy she built. I often look back at the tenets she provided … and continue to use her guidance to build my career and shape who I am as a woman, physical therapist, and clinician. My mother always told me, ‘Find your passion, and you will be successful.’ As I am now a mother myself, I often find myself admiring her even more for her role as a leader and working mom. She was a true trailblazer and inspiration for so many women, including myself, that were lucky enough to know her.”

Suzanne was also a forward thinker when it came to issues of racial diversity. Her passion for creating a better health care environment set the course for Atrium Health’s “for all” mission. She supported the development of the first FOR ALL Diversity Conference in 2002. 2022 is the 20th anniversary for this annual premier diversity conference. Suzanne was also an executive sponsor of Atrium Health’s first ever diversity committee. She focused her efforts on the uninsured, making our nation’s hospitals safer and developing a qualified workforce, areas that Atrium Health continues to focus on today. Suzanne saw these not as challenges, but as opportunities for creating a better future. 

She championed and authorized a feasibility study that led to the creation of Charlotte Mecklenburg Hospital Authority School of Nursing – today’s Carolinas College of Health Sciences. 

In 2010, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and underwent a stem cell transplant and chemotherapy. Despite an initially positive prognosis and returning to work part time, she decided to take medical leave in early 2012. 

Suzanne Freeman died in May 2012 at the age of 59. To honor the memory of her lasting impact, the auditorium of Carolinas Medical Center was officially named the Suzanne H. Freeman Auditorium in 2013. Today, it serves as an educational and informational hub for Atrium Health, that has hosted hundreds of events and activities. A fitting tribute to a woman who contributed so much of herself to improving health, elevating hope and advancing healing – FOR ALL. 

“My life’s success is going to be measured by what I leave behind,” she once told students and faculty in a speech at Appalachian State University. “Children who are going to make the world a better place than they found it; a health care organization that can sustain any whims of time, and the people I have impacted are now future leaders. And it’s going to be a life well-lived with a spiritual and moral compass.”

A life well-lived indeed.