Durbin Honors Life and Legacy of Dr. Joanne Smith

Senator introduces bipartisan bill to support rehab hospitals newly named in Dr. Smith’s honor

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) today paid tribute on the Senate floor to medical visionary Dr. Joanne Smith, longtime President and CEO of Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, who passed away this month. In his remarks, Durbin said Dr. Smith was a once-in-a-lifetime leader and a national treasure, whose brilliance, determination, and compassion reinvented the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation. She created the world’s first-ever “translational” research hospital for rehabilitation medicine and pioneered the concept of a cutting-edge research facility within a hospital – with scientists, innovators, technologists, and clinicians all working together to heal patients. Shirley Ryan AbilityLab was recently ranked by U.S. News & World Report the best rehab hospital in the nation for the 31st year in a row. 

Durbin shared the story of Army Sergeant Eric Edmundson, who suffered severe brain damage after a roadside bomb exploded beneath his armored vehicle near the Iraq-Syria broder in 2005. Doctors told Eric’s parents that he would spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state and that the best thing they could do for him was choose a good nursing home.

“But Eric’s family refused to accept that fate for him.  They searched for the best rehabilitation hospital in America – a hospital where Eric would have a chance to receive the very best medical care and have the very best chance for recovery. The hospital they chose…is now known as the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab [in Chicago]. I visited Eric in that hospital several times.  His family was always there, right by his side. I will never forget the time Eric’s dad said, ‘Eric has a present for you.’  I couldn’t imagine what it was.  Then I watched as that brave solider stood up from his wheelchair and took several halting steps. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Six months after he arrived, I literally watched Eric Edmundson—in his Army dress uniform—walk out of the front door of that amazing hospital and into the arms of his wife and his 2-year-old daughter. I thought of Eric and his miraculous recovery when I learned earlier this month of the death of Dr. Joanne Smith, a medical visionary and the longtime President and CEO of Shirley Ryan AbilityLab,” Durbin reflected.

Today, Durbin joined U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D. to introduce the Dr. Joanne Smith Memorial Rehabilitation Innovation Centers Act, a bill that would support rehabilitation facilities that lead the nation in medical research and complex treatment. 

“The discoveries at America’s best rehab innovation centers are revolutionizing medicine—and they are reaching people far beyond their walls … with cutting-edge research labs within world-class hospitals that prioritize training the next generation of doctors. That is why today, Senator Cassidy and I are reintroducing our bipartisan proposal to recognize and support some of America’s best rehab innovation centers,” Durbin said. “When I first introduced this bill in 2013, I had a different Republican cosponsor -- Illinois Senator Mark Kirk. In 2012, Senator Kirk suffered a stroke that left him partly paralyzed and unable to walk. A year later, after months of grueling work at the Rehab Institute of Chicago, Mark Kirk was able to walk up the 42 marble steps into this Capitol building. In honor of the doctor whose brilliance and compassion helped transform the field of physical and rehab medicine that led to the astonishing feat, Senator Cassidy and I have agreed to rename our bill the Dr. Joanne Smith Memorial Rehabilitation Innovation Centers Act.”

Video of Durbin’s floor speech is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s floor speech is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s floor speech is available here for TV stations.

In the United States, there are more than 1,100 Medicare-certified inpatient rehabilitation facilities.  Among these facilities are a small group of rehabilitation institutions that drive the future of rehabilitation care and medicine, as well as patient recovery.  This unique category of inpatient rehabilitation institutions conduct innovative research to advance the field of rehabilitation care, train the next generation of doctors, and treat the most complex conditions, such as traumatic brain injury, stroke, spinal cord injury, childhood disease, burns, and wartime injuries. 

Joanne C. Smith, MD, was a visionary leader and the driving force behind transforming the delivery of care in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Dr. Smith was President and Chief Executive Officer of Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (formerly Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago or RIC) since 2006. She led the organization in its mission to provide the best patient outcomes through the highest-quality clinical care, translational research, scientific discovery and education.    In addition to her leadership at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, Dr. Smith was a faculty member at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a member of several professional organizations.