Say Yes!

Frances Murphy '75 embraced unusual opportunities that led to a rich and varied career.

by Joanie Eppinga and Eamonn Neff

Frances Murphy with award

Frances Murphy '75 received a Special Recognition Award from the Disabled American Veterans last spring.

Early high school graduate. Major in the Air Force. Neurologist. Faculty at Georgetown School of Medicine. Deputy Under Secretary for Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Owner and CEO of Sigma Health Consulting. How does one woman rack up all these accomplishments—and more?

Ask Frances Murphy '75 that question, and she’ll say that what allows her to succeed is “a willingness to say yes to challenges.” She notes that her career has taken several unexpected turns. “I kept getting offered exciting new opportunities,” she says, “and I kept saying yes.”

Murphy’s first yes was to Nazareth, where she became a biology major at 17. Her intention was to go to medical school and become a psychiatrist, but, she says, “Nazareth encouraged exploring different ideas,” and that exploration led to an unexpected interest in neurology.

Other new interests arose as well. In addition to the “solid academic foundation” she got at the school, Murphy says, Nazareth gave her “a focus on personal growth.” That growth led her to another defining factor in her career: an emphasis on service.

“Nazareth provided a lot of individuals who were great role models for public service,” she says. “One thing I’ve always aimed for in my career is to contribute to the overall good of my patients and the community.” Feeling that she has followed that path, Murphy notes, is what has made—and continues to make—her career so satisfying.

That’s not to say it’s been easy. Being young and female in male-dominated fields was a challenge. But, Murphy says, at Nazareth, she “got a great foundation in being a strong woman leader.” And the best way to prove yourself, she says, is to demonstrate competence and “work 100 times harder than the men around you.”

For Murphy, those efforts paid off. After leaving the Air Force and getting an M.P.H. degree from Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, she moved on to working as a physician, educator, researcher, and administrator at the VA. Her work gained her recognition and a national role. She became the first woman to serve as VA Deputy Under Secretary and thus was COO of the nation’s largest health care system. She was an unexpected choice for that top position at the VA, she says, adding, “I really did have to prove myself to those who hadn’t worked with me.” Once again, though, with her service orientation and collaborative management style, she earned the respect of her colleagues, and together they ensured that the VA delivered “The Best Care Anywhere.”

Working at the VA further inspired Murphy’s passion for health policy and veterans’ rights, a cause she continues to promote—for example, by contributing to a comprehensive report about the unique needs of women veterans. In response to that report and many other efforts, the Disabled American Veterans awarded Murphy their 2018 Special Recognition Award for what they called her “lifetime of work serving our nation’s veterans.”

That work continues in yet another career, as CEO of a health consulting firm that employs 50 people. Murphy says she continues to advance the cause of veterans by “helping the federal government to deliver on their health care promises” to those who have served in the armed forces.

Some might be intimidated by moving from an executive government job to the private sector, but, Murphy says, she’s still “absolutely passionate” about her field, and that keeps her going.

That—and her desire to continue to learn, and grow, and say yes.

“You have to get past the fear factor,” she says. “Reach high!”

Joanie Eppinga is a freelance writer and editor in Madison, Wisc. Eamonn Neff is a freelance writer and writing coach in Spokane, Wash.