Reading “The Desiderata” and becoming a nurse informaticist

June 28, 2023 / By Dannie Greenlee, RN

In my first week at my new job as a clinical analyst working on the clinical terminology team at 3M, I was told to read the paper “Desiderata for Controlled Medical Vocabularies in the Twenty-First Century,” written by James Cimino, MD, in 1998. It was one of the many things I would read during my orientation that made very little sense at the time. However, I was reassured that was normal and that things would become clearer, eventually.   

Over the following weeks and months, I was introduced to an entirely new vocabulary and way of thinking. I often heard words like heuristics, value sets, concepts, standards and terminologies. These are words I knew but didn’t understand in this context. Learning an entirely new language with words you already know is very strange. Not infrequently, I would hear my coworkers say, “well, in the Desiderata …,” and “The Desiderata says …,” and I would go back to the paper and reread it, and each time, I would understand it a little bit better.  

Then in August 2020, I began my master’s program to become a nurse informaticist. One of my early classes was a standard terminology class, and there on my syllabus in the first week of the course was “read the Desiderata.” So, with a year and a half of clinical analyst work under my belt and several credits toward my degree, I once again read the Desiderata. The language I had been striving to understand was easier to comprehend, and the ideas in that paper were more evident than ever. Dr. James Cimino gave the informatics world a guide to curating and maintaining terminologies. He gave us the standard. Nothing existed before, and nothing would ever be needed again.  

I was given the opportunity to attend the annual AMIA (American Medical Informatics Association) conference in November 2022. I was excited to attend sessions, listen to speakers, present for 3M, and learn what was new and exciting in the world of informatics. On the last night of the conference, I attended a networking social event. One of my coworkers pointed to a man across the room and said, “That’s Dr. Jim Cimino!” They asked if I wanted to meet him. I eagerly agreed. After all, this man is a superstar in the informatics community and whose words I had been reading for several years. I introduced myself and said something rather silly, like, “I hear you are some kind of a legend around here.” He laughed and said that “if you ever write a paper, give it a name like the Desiderata, no one will ever forget you.”   

Outside of medical informatics and terminologies, when you search for Desiderata, a poem is the first result that returns. This poem, written by Max Ehrmann around 1927, provides simple advice on how to live one’s life that is truly universal to all. In my opinion, it’s good advice. It’s a path or standard for how to be happy and kind. My career had led me to meeting Dr. Jim Cimino, and I interpreted his self-deprecating comment as follows: meaningful work needs a meaningful name. Desiderata described Jim Cimino’s work so eloquently, much like Max Ehrmann did.  I strive to live every day by Max Ehrmann’s roadmap just as I want my work to have as lasting an impression as Jim Cimino’s landmark paper. So, in the wise words of Max Ehrmann, “Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” 

Dannie Greenlee MS, RN, is a senior clinical analyst at 3M Health Information Systems.