Former UND nursing instructor selected for Biden-Harris transition team

Local health leaders expressed excitement that former UND Center for Rural Health Director Mary Wakefield was named as one of 500 experts who will help advise Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on a smooth transition into the White House.

Brad Gibbens, left, Mary Wakefield and Gary Hart are pictured in this file image. (Image courtesy of UND Center for Rural Health)

A former ICU nurse with deep roots in eastern North Dakota has been tapped for Joe Biden's transition team. Mary Wakefield, a Grand Forks woman originally from Devils Lake, will serve as a volunteer member on the Biden-Harris Department of Health and Human Services team.

Wakefield has had a long career in health care and public service. After graduating from what is now the University of Mary in Bismarck with a degree in nursing in 1976, she was hired to be a faculty member at UND's College of Nursing at 25 years old. She went on to serve as the chief of staff for North Dakota Sens. Kent Conrad and Quentin Burdick and later became the director of UND's Center for Rural Health.

Wakefield served as the administrator of the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration starting in 2009 and, in 2015, was appointed by President Barack Obama as the acting deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

After her term ended in 2017, she returned to Grand Forks, where she's spent time remote teaching at the University of Texas. She was recognized by the American Academy of Nursing with a Living Legend Award in 2019.

When reached by the Herald on Monday, Nov. 16, Wakefield said she was unable to comment on the transition team or process and directed questions to the Biden-Harris press team. A spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the 500 members of the transition team were selected because they are respected experts in their fields with extensive experience with federal agencies.


Brad Gibbens, director of UND's Center for Rural Health, and Debbie Swanson, director of the Grand Forks Public Health Department, both attested to that.

"I think she's really well-positioned to significantly contribute to that team for the Department of Health and Human Services, and I think it's especially important because of the vast experience that she's had in health care and public policy," Swanson said. "But one of the things I really want to state is that she'll represent nurses who are on the frontlines of public health and health care in our country, and she's greatly respected and admired by nurses, so we're excited that she has a seat at the table to help with a smooth transition within a federal agency that impacts health and nursing."

Swanson, who had Wakefield as a professor at UND, recalled that the instructor was always generous with her time and impacted the lives of countless nursing students.

Gibbens, whose work has overlapped with Wakefield's several times throughout their careers, described her as a strong, dynamic person with a deeply held passion for rural health care.

Gibbens said that, to him, Wakefield's appointment to the transition team indicates the incoming president's commitment to rural health care.

"She very much keeps the idea of rural in front of everybody," he said. "And again, she understands rural at a national level, but she also really understands it at the North Dakota level. So some of the unique things that we deal with, as it relates to, say, critical-access hospitals, as it relates to rural health work force, as it relates to addressing population health needs, she has that knowledge and awareness from a rural state that she can put in front of the people as they're starting to take over for a new administration. So I think it's important.

"It's easy to see her as this dynamic individual," he continued. "But behind all of that is this person who grew up in Devils Lake, North Dakota, and she's never forgotten where she's from."


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