Big Thinking Means Big, Positive Impact

Meet Candace Novak Sabers ’96 

UC Health is one of Greater Cincinnati’s largest healthcare systems, spanning across the tri-state region of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. That means the work Candace Novak Sabers ’96 does as the vice president of government relations and community relations is an enormous endeavor. The health system cares for nearly 450,000 patients each year from all 50 states, and it has 12,000 employees. Big-picture thinking is required; you could even say it is Sabers’ superpower.

While a Saint Mary’s social work student, Sabers knew she wanted to help the most vulnerable people in society. Instead of choosing a one-on-one setting with patients, she chose to work on the macro level. Today, she’s helping patients by the thousands with statewide policy improvements and changes to laws in Ohio, specifically.

Candace Sabers

Challenging systems to better serve patients is part of providing compassionate care.

​Success for One Equals Success for All

Working with congressional representatives and their policy advisors to secure funding for much-needed facility upgrades—like the expansion of UC Medical Center, the only level-one adult trauma center in southwest Ohio—Sabers keeps patients at the forefront of her mind. “Everything we do is through the lens of benefiting patients and families, because our focus is to advance their healing and reduce their suffering,” she said.

To that end, Sabers is excited about the recent success of a new state law protecting organ donors who give the gift of life. Without this law in place, living organ donations have been challenging for Ohioans due to insurance red tape or denials in coverage. Sabers and her team have worked tirelessly for the past several years to create protections for donors that removes these barriers. With this new law, expected to be enacted in 2022 with Gov. Mike Dewine’s signature, Sabers has succeeded.

“It’s a tremendous win for all patients and all donors and their families—everyone who is involved in organ transplant,” she said.

Compassion in Healthcare

Making more organ donations possible is one of the ways Sabers is ensuring compassionate care for Ohio patients. And the greater medical community recognizes the value of compassion, she said. The enhancement to healthcare has been a focus on compassionate care and social workers have brought that to the forefront. “I love that they (social workers) are identified as key members of the care teams.”

As a student at Saint Mary’s, Sabers personally experienced the compassion of the campus community while she learned the importance of it and how to use it within a social work setting. Woven into the College’s values, the emphasis on compassion helped Sabers’ self-discovery as a young woman, which in turn, shaped her life’s direction.

“Coming from southeast Ohio, it was the empathy I experienced from others that helped me relate to, and build relationships with women who were so different from me,” she said. That experience encouraged her to have compassion for herself and others from then on. “To have that discovery process in a judgment-free, supportive, safe place was very important to me,” she said. She took an introductory social work class, and the course work defined the sense of belonging she was seeking as a student and what she wanted to give in her career.

Challenging systems to better serve patients is part of providing compassionate care, according to Sabers. She wants students to know that social workers can challenge and change systems. Advocating for vulnerable patients, creating relationships with community organizations that serve them, and then improving those systems, processes, and policies is possible, as evidenced in her career. “If we just go the extra mile, and we build those relationships so we can do a little more advocacy, we can help more patients,” she said. “Sometimes that takes pushing back on the system.”

Advocating for Research

Without research, advocating for system-wide change is nearly impossible, Sabers said. So she made a major gift commitment to Saint Mary’s to support undergraduate student research in social work. The benefits to the field of social work, research, future students, and, most importantly, to patients cannot be overstated, she said.

The College is in its final approval stages for the masters of social work program, slated to begin in fall 2023. It will include two different options for students: a 3+1 program and a traditional two-year program with an advanced standing option for any student who graduated with a bachelor of social work degree, said Kelly Burns, director of graduate programs. "The MSW gives students a clear path from undergraduate studies into specialized and practical experience," Burns said.

It will also give them research opportunities. Sabers wants people to know that research does not stand alone. It is most beneficial when it is part of the workplace. “As practitioners,  research should be included in how we practice in our careers. Because otherwise, we can’t improve our practices,” she said. “Research can change systems when we use curiosity to discover if we can do things better, how to do them better, or how to do them differently to improve outcomes for patients.”

Aiming high with a social work degree is something Sabers stresses to students. “Social work is not restrictive or prohibitive. I think a lot of people believe that I have a legal background (in my role at UC Health), and they're pretty shocked when they hear that I'm a social worker,” she said. At the end of the day, it’s about helping patients and their families. “I want students to know they can work more broadly within their own organizations and larger external systems to influence change.”

Support for the ‘Only Woman in the Room’

Furthering their initial gift to help fuel the social work program and research, Sabers and her husband, Brian, recently joined the Mother Pauline Society by including Saint Mary's in their estate plans.

They give generously to Saint Mary’s to help future social workers and the work they’ll do in the field, but a close second reason is because Sabers is often the only woman in the room.

Being an executive director of a state board appointed by a governor and working in the healthcare sector where the C-suite is primarily male dominated, drives Sabers to empower women, especially women who choose social work as a career. “Empowering them to find their voice at the healthcare table and to own and take credit for their contributions is really important to me,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to put your name on your work and your voice behind it.”

Owning her work is one of the principles Saint Mary’s professors instilled in her. Sabers, along with two sisters who graduated from Saint Mary’s, and two nieces (who are current students) all share in the gratitude they have for their professors. She says she’ll never forget the support she received from them while at Saint Mary’s.

“The fact that all five of us remember our professors, and talk about them today, and that my nieces love their professors, highlights Saint Mary’s culture of continuing to hire educators who give students a life-time of support,” she said. “I don’t think you find that outside of a place like Saint Mary’s.”

Photo credits: UC Health
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