A Storyteller with a Mission
I make my way through the dreary morning rain to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, 68th Street to be exact. I wrestle my umbrella, press the button, and take the elevator to the 7th floor of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, and wait. A few minutes later, Karen Sodomick rushes into the office suite carrying a bouquet of beautiful fresh flowers, shakes my hand, and gives me an enthusiastic “War Eagle” before making her way down the hall. She and her social media team have something to celebrate. As the office erupts in cheers and laughter, a smile spreads across my face, and I think to myself this day isn’t so gloomy after all.
Karen Sodomick is the vice president for communications at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, one of the largest and most respected healthcare facilities in the nation. A two-time Auburn graduate, she received a bachelor’s degree in public relations in 1998 and a master’s degree in communications in 2000. Sodomick didn’t grow up an Auburn fan like so many of the alumni we interview as she spent most of her youth in West Virginia and then moved to Alabama after ninth grade. Even though Sodomick had friends at Auburn, it was a campus tour that solidified her decision to enroll. Her mother supported her choice but with one caveat. “My mother said to me at the time, ‘You’re not going to Auburn, unless you room with people you don’t know,’” Sodomick explained. “Not because she didn’t like my high school friends, but because she felt strongly that I should meet people from other parts of the country so that I would grow and learn from others.”
With a passion for writing and strategy, Sodomick enrolled in public relations with a focus on health communications, but shortly before graduating, she found herself longing for a career with a more direct impact on community-related issues. Sodomick began volunteering for Lee County’s Stop Child Abuse Now program, which led her to enroll in the clinical psychology graduate program at Auburn. Yet two years later, she found herself unfulfilled. “I needed to marry my interests in civic responsibility and community with my interest in health communications. There was a visiting professor in the communications department, Dr. Myrick, and I talked to him about my interests and my quandary. He told me about the research he was conducting about the Center for Disease Control’s AIDS public service announcements and how the messages they deployed were perpetuating certain stigmas specific to marginalized communities. I knew in that moment that I could continue my work in communications while also fulfilling my desire to focus on health-related issues.”
Sodomick found her niche while working alongside Professor Myrick, and completed her master’s degree in communications with a focus on health. She was on a path to academia—or at least she thought she was. “I was at Ohio State looking into their public health program, when I received a call from my mother. She said NASA was trying to contact me for an interview, and I recall saying, ‘How can that be? I haven’t applied for anything.’ My mother very casually responded, ‘Well, I submitted your résumé.’ And I immediately thought, ‘what résumé,’ quickly followed by, ‘what cover letter?’”
Sodomick flew back to Alabama and interviewed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. She was offered the position of public information associate later that day and spent the next nine years at NASA doing everything from “wiping down an exhibit to being interviewed on Good Morning, America to working with US senators.” Toward the end of her tenure at NASA, she was responsible for international outreach and was temporarily based in Washington, DC.
“I traveled to England, to Canada and had the opportunity to work with colleagues from other space agencies supporting the International Space Station program. I also had the opportunity to work with some of the brightest and most dedicated engineers, scientists, and astronauts who were working directly on the program. It was a privilege and a blessing that I never took for granted. To this day, I credit my mom for helping start my career on such a wonderful trajectory.”
Working for NASA was a transformative experience, yet Sodomick yearned for a position where she could pursue her passion for serving others. She turned down an opportunity at American Express and ultimately accepted a job with Teach for America in New York City.
“It was always very clear that I needed to be in a mission-driven organization. It had to be either healthcare and mission-driven or a non-profit, and so Teach for America was a sweet spot in terms of it being education, mission-driven, and giving back to underserved communities,” she explained. “And I had always envisioned myself in New York City.”
Although Teach for America fulfilled her desire to give back, it lacked the creativity and collaboration upon which Sodomick thrived. She began to seek other opportunities and ultimately landed a position with Phoenix House Foundation, a national non-profit treatment center for drug and alcohol abuse. “During my tenure as VP of marketing and communications at Phoenix House, I had an opportunity to work with Alan Siegel, a renowned brand master and founder of Siegel and Gale,” Sodomick explained. “The work was important and meaningful because we were telling the stories of people that are often marginalized and subjected to stigmatized and stereotypical beliefs.”
Sodomick’s award-winning work at Phoenix House was recognized by industry recruiters and eventually led to her current position at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital (NYP). “The truth is even when the recruiters called, I wasn’t interested until the position at NYP came along. They’re a national leader in healthcare, and I knew it would give me an opportunity to expand my horizons while also continuing my work in healthcare and giving back to the community. When I accepted the position at NYP, it was exciting to build a new team and develop a strategic communications vision that would engage stakeholders and raise the profile of NYP.”
The respect and pride Sodomick has for her team at NYP is clear. “There is nothing like watching your team dedicate tremendous passion, creativity and time to developing a story, not knowing if the Wall Street Journal will pick it up or if it will end up as part of a Today Show segment. It often starts as an idea in one of our team meetings, where everybody starts offering ideas on how to capture the essence of the story, and then you see the idea grow into a beautiful, compelling story that eventually reaches the hearts and minds of our patients and their families as well as others.”
Sodomick shared an example of her team’s extraordinary ability to connect with people. “We recently hired two video producers. We wanted to find individuals who at their heart were storytellers. These two women have done an incredible job of telling some of our stories through video. They recently produced a video called "Grandma Cuddler," which is about a woman who travels almost two hours every week to our NICU to cuddle babies, sit with them, rock them, or hold them until they’re comfortable while their parents are working or attending to the needs of their other children. The video turned out beautifully, and our media team pitched it while our social media team shared it on our platforms. The response to "Grandma Cuddler" was overwhelmingly positive. It was picked up very quickly by The Today Show; Buzzfeed shared it online; Good Morning America picked it up, and CBS This Morning. Ultimately, every single network picked it up. It was amazing and incredibly rewarding to see the team’s hard work pay off and feel such satisfaction knowing that they are making a meaningful contribution.”
Storytelling is what Sodomick’s team does best, yet in a hospital setting this can be one of the most trying aspects of the job. “When you consider the day to day, communications for a hospital can be quite challenging. You’re often working with various departments across the organization, from legal to patient services to marketing and beyond, and you feel quite separated from patient care. That said, meeting a patient and hearing their story or talking to the care team responsible for delivering our patient’s care is a gift, and we’ve been tasked with the privilege of telling these stories. There's nothing better.”
So what was Sodomick and her team celebrating on this rainy morning? They were named the nation’s top hospital in social media strategy. Digital storytelling through the eyes of a grieving mother, an anxious patient, or a compassionate volunteer educates, inspires, and transforms us, and Sodomick and her team are leading the way.
I find myself reflecting on the stories we tell here in CLA. Stories like Karen Sodomick’s are a testament to the kind of educational foundation we provide to our students who go on to be risk takers, change agents, and leaders who celebrate wins, big and small.
Written by Wendy Bonner
Last Updated: February 11, 2019