On the heels of winning a third term to the N.C. House of Representatives’ District 41, 64-year-old Gale Adcock is back in her office at SAS Institute in Cary, where she serves as chief health officer to the world’s largest privately held software company.
But she’s not lounging in the corner office, collecting accolades. She’s in the exam room performing physicals and administering vaccines to some of the 14,000 SAS employees and family members who use the health care center she oversees. You’ll have to excuse her while she tries to wrap her head around her recent Women of Western Wake Lifetime Achievement Award.
“A lifetime?” she laughs. “I haven’t lived a lifetime yet.”
To look at her accomplishments, some might say this energetic 5-foot-2-inch giant has lived several lifetimes — as a nurse, corporate executive, advocate and politician. When Cary Magazine honored the SAS executive as a Woman of Western Wake in 2010, Adcock was not quite halfway through her seven-year tenure as a Cary Town Council member. As it turns out, that was just the beginning of her life as a public servant and a far cry from the blue-collar town in Virginia where she grew up with a singular goal — to be a nurse.
“I never thought of doing anything else,” recalled Adcock. “When I was 6 years old, I set up a cat hospital on my back porch to take care of the neighborhood cats. I gave them milk and baby aspirin and loved on them.”
Determined to be the first college graduate in her family, she put herself through nursing school, then on to ECU for her bachelor’s degree and to UNC for a master’s degree. She still makes a point to see patients every week, because she worked so hard to become a certified nurse practitioner.
“Being a nurse is the best thing that ever happened to me. You are instrumental to people living as good a life as they can live,” said Adcock.
Nursing has been her springboard to a lifetime dedicated to improving people’s health and lives.
Of all she has accomplished, Adcock is most proud of the work she has done at SAS.
Twenty-five years ago, she was challenged with turning the company’s fledgling health center into a comprehensive primary care center with a full-service pharmacy and lab. Today, her team provides on-site care to 75 percent of employees. This job perk has helped the company achieve its reputation as an employer of choice and an innovative leader in employee work-life balance.
“Very few companies would let a nurse try that; they would have a physician in charge,” explained Adcock. “I’m a rarity, and I never forget what a great job I have. It’s a privilege.”
Her enthusiasm for nursing draws people to her and allows her natural leadership to shine through. As president of her freshman nursing school class, she saw the need to advocate for nurses — the country’s largest healthcare profession. When she became president of the North Carolina Nurses Association, she used her voice and leadership skills to influence those in power at the state and federal level.
“To be able to move policy forward that improves life for not just one person but impacts a greater number? I saw that as a way to really extend my reach to affect change,” said Adcock.
Her top priority — then and now — is to increase access to health care for everyone in the state. There are many pockets in N.C., even in the Triangle, where people don’t have access to care. Adcock says certified nurse practitioners could help close that gap, if they were allowed to see patients without a physician’s supervision. But that notion requires a change in state law.
Moving the Needle
After years at SAS and advocating for nurses, she began to think bigger.
“I realized the way to really move the needle was to become a decision-maker,” said Adcock.
She was elected to the Cary Town Council in 2007 where she championed downtown Cary, education and economic development — all issues that allowed her to strengthen her community and meet the needs of its people.
Cary businesswoman and past lifetime achievement winner, Sheila Ogle says Adcock’s ability to connect with her constituents is her greatest gift.
“Her ability to talk to and embrace people from the lowest in position to the highest is phenomenal,” she said. “It is what endears her to all of her friends and the community and enables her to walk across the aisle.”
That asset has been critical since arriving on Jones Street in 2014, as a member of the minority party.
She has forged ties across the aisle with colleagues like Rep. Josh Dobson, with whom she co-sponsored a bill that would allow advanced practice nurses to see patients without physician oversight. The Republican describes their relationship as a genuine friendship with mutual respect.
“She is thoughtful, not ideological. She is interested in the right policy answer rather than which uniform you are wearing,” he said.
Adcock is quick to point out, despite the Lifetime Achievement Award, she isn’t finished yet.
She sees the next chapter of her life focused on empowering nurses and encouraging more of them to go into politics — especially as few legislators understand health care but make many decisions about the issue. Adcock says dealing with fear, facing the unknown and solving problems are nursing skills that translate well to the halls of power.
“Most nurses don’t understand how well they would fit in as elected officials,” said Adcock. “My job now is to demystify the political process for them so they aren’t intimidated by the club behavior.”
It is her turn to do for others what so many have done for her — support, encourage and pave the way toward a healthier community.
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