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Alumni Profiles: Heidi Crooks, MA '73

SoN alumna and CNO of UCLA Health System named UCLA “Visionary Leader”; Heidi Crooks credits UW for developing her leadership skills

By Ashley Wiggin

Heidi Crooks, MA ’73, currently the Chief Nursing Officer and Senior Associate Director of Operations and Patient care at the UCLA Health System has loved her career in nursing, although she never intended to become a nurse. A native of Finland, Crooks spent a year as an exchange student in Michigan while in high school, and returned home to questions from her mother about what was next. While Crooks had planned to take prerequisites to attend medical school, her mother had different plans. 

“I returned home from my time in Michigan and my mother asked me if I planned to apply to nursing school as well as to medical school,” She said. “I mentioned to her that the deadline for applying to nursing school had already passed (school started in September and Crooks returned home in August). My mother explained that she had already completed the application process for me and that I had an interview with the Dean the following week. She promised that if I didn’t like it, I could apply to medical school…but, I loved it right away!”

Heidi Crooks, MA '73Heidi Crooks, MA '73As soon as Crooks started in the nursing program, however, she immediately fell in love with the profession and knew she had made the right choice. Heidi took on leadership roles in the nursing program and as the President of the Finnish Student Nurse Association.  After completing her nursing degree in a diploma program in Finland, she continued her education, specializing in public health. Crooks joined the Scandinavian relief effort as part of the International Red Cross work in Nigeria during the Biafra war. There as a public health Nurse she helped establish clinics, teach health and hygiene, and immunize the population against smallpox.  A long-time admirer of Albert Schweitzer, one of the first medical missionaries in Africa, Crooks had always intended to work with the needy.

“I had always wanted to run a clinic in Africa,” She said. “That was my dream.”

After working for the Red Cross, Crooks felt she needed further education, especially in health care administration. She then enrolled in the University of Turku to pursue a health care administration degree. Shortly after, she took a job with the Save the Children’s Fund that sent her to Nigeria to be a Matron of a hospital in South Eastern Nigeria. During her stay in Nigeria she met an American pilot working for UNICEF and they eventually married and her journey to the US began. She and her husband, a Navy Captain, moved around the US, and she held nursing leadership positions across the country. While her husband was stationed on Whidbey Island, Crooks came to the UW to pursue further education in nursing leadership.

 “The UW prepared me to do the kind of intellectual debate and participate in discussion which I had not been taught in Europe,” She said. “It taught me leadership and high-level discussion skills that made me comfortable in any kind of situation discussing any topic.” 

After completing her master’s degree, Crooks was recruited to a position in Portland and later to a hospital Vice President job in Chicago. From there, Crooks was recruited to UCLA, and has stayed at this prestigious academic medical center for 22 years. 

“The average tenure in this position is 3-5 years,” She said with a laugh. “I’ve loved it so much that I’ve stayed for 22 years! There is still so much left to do here.”

Recently, Crooks, who manages the 3,500 nurses of the UCLA Health System, received an award from the UCLA School of Nursing for her visionary leadership. She believes that teams are critical in every level of health care, from the bedside to the boardroom.

“My team has made me successful,” She said.  “I couldn’t have done this alone. I surround myself with thinkers who can help me manage situations. I am only as visionary as my staff and those who work with me.”

Crooks’ life hasn’t been all work, however. She recently took up ballroom dancing, spending about four hours a week on the dance floor.

“It’s a great thing for my mind,” she said. “Having a hobby like dancing is a great balance to the fast paced job I have.”

You can watch the video celebrating Crooks’ award here.