Leading with a Mission

Leader Spotlight: Melissa McClain, Associate Medical Director, Baltimore

Many successful leaders can pinpoint the spark of their passion to childhood and conversation around the dinner table. Melissa McClain is no exception. Her father was an anesthesiologist; her mother, an ICU nurse. So supper-table talk often revolved around medical cases and healthcare—what worked, what needed improvement. The discussions and strong desire to help others inspired Melissa to pursue a career as a physician assistant. Many of her siblings took the service route as well; among them are a cardiac nurse, a firefighter/paramedic, and another physician assistant.

Perhaps the true inspiration comes from her heart. Melissa has always been driven by empathy and compassion, traits usually shared by good leaders, especially important in healthcare. She leads and serves by example.

As a teenager, Melissa was called to missionary work, which she continues to this day. She has served on medical mission teams in Mexico, Romania, and—frequently—Haiti. There, she worked on the remote island of La Gonave, where people with leprosy were sent (and where leprosy still exists). Her mission team would stock a boat with over-the-counter and prescription medications, medical supplies, clean water kits, yarn, knitting needles, and school supplies. They unloaded the boat at a central camp site on the shoreline, where the team lived in tents without electricity or running water. They’d take interpreters to remote villages and hold full-day medical clinics, complete with a pharmacy. The team participated in other projects, too: delivering portable water filtration units to the villagers’ homes, visiting the schools, and participating in music, arts, and crafts with the local children.  A non- medical branch of the mission team taught the women of the villages to knit. The missionaries would then take what the villagers made and sell it in small boutiques in the States. Soon, the women were teaching each other how to knit.

Often, it’s our first jobs that teach us big lessons such as the importance of attention to every detail. Even the menial tasks we’re often assigned such as filing and reading college applications for her grandmother, the head of graduate admissions at Johns Hopkins in the 1980s, when everything was on paper. “She taught me that doing things the right way was crucial to someone’s educational future.”

Melissa’s first real job as a teenager was with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which was a small startup at the time. It helped kindle and nurture her love for the water and continued the lessons about the smallest tasks done right being crucial for success. Later in high school, she married her love for water and her compassion for people when she became a lifeguard.

Now, with over 15 years as a medical provider and with the insight gleaned from her family of caregivers, she is more firmly centered on improving healthcare to provide proper care and medicine to all people, regardless of their economic and social status. But as a leader who puts her emotional intelligence to work every day, she also advocates for those who serve the industry. “I would also love to see more focus on improving working environments and benefits for those on the frontlines of patient care and their support staff,” she says.

Melissa spends her free time wherever there is water. She enjoys swimming, boating, and kayaking, and her hobbies inform her work daily. “I never know what to expect when heading out on the water. Conditions can change rapidly, so I must be prepared to adjust quickly,” she says. “The ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances is fundamental to the work I do each day.” Of course, her motto is “Be the change you wish to see.”

Melissa married her high-school sweetheart and has three kids ranging in age from 7 to 27. She lives in Annapolis, where there is plenty of water.