Tracy Gosselin says she was taken by surprise when she got the call asking her to consider applying for the top nursing job at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK).
“I laughed and said, ‘I can give you lots of names,’ ” she recalls. After careful thought and consultation, she ultimately decided to apply. She got the job not only because she had the experience; she also has the heart and soul of an oncology nurse.
Dr. Gosselin joined MSK in November 2021 as Senior Vice President and Chief Nursing Executive. Her credentials are impressive — PhD, RN, AOCN, NEA-BC, FAAN — plus 28 years in nursing at Duke University Hospital. But Dr. Gosselin says she is stepping into the shoes of a luminary in the field — Elizabeth McCormick. Under her leadership, MSK’s nursing staff twice received Magnet® recognition, the nation’s highest honor for exceptional nursing care.
“It’s really about building upon the excellence that’s already here,” Dr. Gosselin says, taking a sip of her Diet Coke. It’s on a Friday, and she is just sitting down to lunch. After nearly 30 years as a nurse, a busy schedule doesn’t faze her.
A Calling to Cancer
She grew up in Sutton, Massachusetts, 50 miles outside Boston, and says she found her passion for nursing when she was a teenager volunteering at a local hospital. Delivering flowers to patients, rocking babies in the nursery, and assisting nurses on nonclinical tasks focused her ambition and taught her the value of human connection. She called it an honor “being present and learning how people navigated whatever it was that brought them in.”
She was inspired to enroll in a five-year program at Northeastern University. When she started to care for people with cancer, she knew she had found her vocation. “I loved getting to know their stories and who they were as people,” Dr. Gosselin says.
To the surprise of no one in her life, she received multiple job offers upon graduating. She chose Duke, which was opening a new solid tumor oncology unit that emphasized continuity of care: one nurse providing top-to-bottom care for a small group of patients. Dr. Gosselin packed her things and moved 700 miles south. North Carolina, she admits, took some getting used to.
“I thought I could ride my bicycle to work because in Boston, there were buses, there was the T, and people knew how to take care of snow,” she says with a laugh. “The recruiter took one look at me and said, ‘You need to get a car.’ ”
‘Keep Calm and Hurdle On’
But just as she defended her PhD, she got heartbreaking news: Her father was diagnosed with stage 4 gastroesophageal cancer. Suddenly, she saw cancer from the other side of the bed, as a patient’s loved one. Sometimes, Dr. Gosselin had trouble switching off her “nurse brain.”
“I will never forget what the hospice physician told me,” she says. “He said, ‘Tracy, you just need to be a daughter right now.’ ”
Her father’s illness and death taught her the importance of simply sharing in her patients’ grief, to just be present and say nothing at all. She says it’s a challenge for anyone who takes care of patients because “all we want to do is make things better, and sometimes hope of cure changes to hope for a peaceful death.” She developed a mantra she uses to this day: “Keep calm and hurdle on.”
“It’s about helping people through those challenging moments,” she says. “How do you listen and figure out what they need, and help them through that next hurdle?”
Even as the executive in charge of 5,000 nurses, Dr. Gosselin checks in on patients when she’s rounding the halls to ask about their care.
‘Oncology Chose Me’
She’s also making the rounds to listen to nurses. When she started, she set out to meet as many as possible, spending time in inpatient units and at each of MSK’s seven regional locations. “I think it’s important to see people and thank them, because it’s not easy,” she says. “There’s a big push around self-care, but people want more than that. People want to be seen, heard, and valued for their contributions.”
Long-term, her priorities are to recruit top-tier talent and to ensure care is accessible to people outside of New York City. She’s also looking forward to mentoring the next generation of MSK nurses. She says, “You just try to pay it forward for what other people did for you early on.”
When the workday ends, she enjoys exploring the city with her husband, John. They love walking in Central Park, going to museums, and seeing Broadway shows.
It’s an exciting new chapter for Dr. Gosselin and one she never imagined. “Growing up, I didn’t know much about cancer,” she says. “But oncology chose me, and I keep choosing it, over and over again.”