In recognition of National Kidney Month, Meet Virna Elly, Champion for The Kidney Community

National Kidney Month

Virna Elly is Director of Client Services at Think and has more than 20 years of leadership and consulting experience solving complex business issues. She is a healthcare IT focused leader with proven success managing application, system, and process transformation and modernization.

In 2005 Virna received a kidney-pancreas transplant. That same year, she launched herself into volunteering for the kidney community, where she discovered her gift for simplifying information and amplifying the voices and stories for thousands of patients experiencing the unimaginable.

She is a subject matter expert in End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) which she uses to champion patient engagement and patient advocacy. She is the former Patient Advisory Committee Chair for ESRD Network 5 and current member of the Forum of ESRD Networks’ Kidney Patient Advisory Committee.

Among others, her areas of expertise include project management, program management, organizational change management, process transformation, business development, relationship management, healthcare IT, talent management, patient engagement, and patient advocacy.

Professionally, what do you consider your most significant accomplishment to be?

I had stopped working when my kidneys failed because my illness, including dialysis, posed many challenges. My most significant accomplishment has been successfully resetting my career after receiving my transplant.

Getting back on my feet gave me confidence in my ability to work through tough challenges and taught me to have strength in my convictions. This became a critical skillset of mine in the male dominated tech realm, where I hadn’t yet honed my craft and there wasn’t yet a focus on human design. 

At the age where most people begin to ascend from junior roles to mid-level ones, I found myself starting over. Being tenacious and determined to listen, understand, and learn has been foundational in my ability to connect with clients and staff at all levels.

It is what enabled me to progress in my career from project manager managing a single project, to a management role that allowed me to manage a $150 million program and over 120 people.

Drawing from my experience as a kidney patient, I bring a unique lens to our team and the consulting industry, as human design solidifies itself as a keystone in all processes, products, and technology. Design thinking and the way we approach work is a central focus of mine as I continue to look for ways to coach and mentor individual staff, motivate teams, and improve the customer experience.

What do you enjoy most about your career in the consulting industry?

Every day, I go to work with an opportunity to create and improve measurable outcomes and support individuals and teams to leave them in a better place than before we began.

Whether it is clients, kidney patients or those getting started in their career, I apply things I learn from volunteering to better support clients and vice versa. Each is a little different, but the fundamentals are similar. Listening is critical. I need to accurately understand the challenges before I can figure out how to help. Once I understand, we can collaborate to achieve and surpass desired outcomes.

I also enjoy being able to pay it forward. No one gets where they are without help. I wouldn’t be where I am without the help of others, and I want to do everything I can to help people and their companies thrive.

Throughout my career, I have worked with staff at every level. I enjoy mentoring someone who is just starting out in their career and assisting them in their growth just as much as being a sounding board for someone more senior. Taking a human approach creates a ripple of people helping each other to do and become better. Looking back, you realize your most important accomplishments are often helping others grow and succeed.

Why is your volunteer work in the kidney community so important to you?

I suffered kidney failure at the age of 30, before the internet, computer databases, or online support groups were readily available. I had to show up for dialysis every day and navigate the entire system and process alone. After my transplant, I vowed to get my start in volunteerism for the kidney community to honor my deceased donor, make best use of their gift, raise awareness, and help others.

I serve as a volunteer for ESRD Network 5 which covers MD, DC, VA, and WV; and serve

as a technical expert panelist and subject matter expert for the government and help patients navigate the dialysis and transplant processes.

Dealing with an illness is physically exhausting and emotionally isolating. I help provide one-on-one support to patients who are unsure by sharing my experiences so they can relate to someone who has been through what they are going through.

My volunteer work has allowed me to be a positive and relatable example for other kidney patients. I have had the opportunity to train and prepare patients to speak with their members of Congress, start support groups, teach the basics of social media in order that patients can participant in tweet chats, provide tutelage on virtual meeting applications like Zoom so that patients can participate in virtual meetings, and generally model or teach what patient engagement can look like.

Volunteering in the kidney community has been a rewarding experience, but I am most proud to see patients that I have mentored begin volunteering too. It is so encouraging to see patients become leaders who are brave enough to share their story. I now count so many of these people as friends and, moreover, we help one another other contribute to the betterment of the kidney community.

What are you goals for 2022 and beyond?

In the future, I want to continue to serve as an example of how one can leverage something viewed negatively, like kidney failure, to offer more and not less, as well as demonstrate how someone can successfully blend personal and professional interests to strengthen their contributions to both.

I believe that my unpaid volunteer work is as important as the consulting I’m paid for.

You can draw from a different area of your life to balance and strengthen your contributions in other areas. Your personal and professional interests and experiences don’t necessarily have to be held separate; in so many cases, both can live and thrive in the same space. Through this, I ultimately hope to motivate others to extend their empathy beyond issues that directly affect them.

In the words of Simon Sinek, “when we admit what we don’t know, it increases the chance that someone, who does know, will offer to help.”