National Nurses Week Celebrates Nurses: Suzanne Reynolds, 42 Years Caring for Others
“ESSENCE OF NURSING”: Suzanne Reynolds, a nurse for 42 years, currently works for WellCare, focusing on patient-centered care planning, a field she pioneered early in her career. Her priority is to keep patients in their homes for cost-effectiveness and a better quality of life. (Photo courtesy of Suzanne Reynolds)
By Donald Gilpin
When Suzanne Reynolds was only 14 years old, her mother underwent a surgical procedure called vein stripping to treat varicose veins. When she came home from the hospital she needed somebody to wrap her legs, and Suzanne volunteered. “So I would wrap her legs, and that’s when I decided I wanted to be a nurse,” Reynolds said.
Soon afterwards she signed on as a Junior Auxiliary Nurse (JAN) at Perth Amboy General Hospital (now Raritan Bay Medical Center), traveling the short distance from her family’s home in Fords. “I was a bit too old to be a candy striper, so at 14 I was a JAN,” she added. “We’d help to feed the patients, refill their water glasses, socialize, and work with the patients in the hospital — and I really liked it.”
She wasted no time plunging into her chosen profession, receiving her RN from Middlesex Community College at age 19 and starting full-time work the following month. By the time her official RN certification came through two months later, she was in charge of the whole floor at Perth Amboy General.
Forty-two years later, Suzanne Reynolds is still nursing with purpose and passion. Her particular passion focuses on public health nursing, pioneering and developing the field of case management — working with patients to help them stay and age in their own homes, which is not only more cost-effective than a hospital or nursing home stay, but also potentially provides a far better quality of life.
“This career has been incredibly rewarding,” Reynolds said. “My joy and my reward come when I know that I made a difference in a patient’s life to keep her home and get her what she needs. That’s what gives me satisfaction.”
After working full-time for a year at Perth Amboy General, Reynolds, at her father’s insistence, went back to college, this time to William Patterson University, where she was introduced to public health nursing and earned her bachelor’s of science degree in nursing.
After college she signed on with the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) of Middlesex County, where she worked for 35 years, from 1981 to 2016. “I fell in love with public health nursing,” she said. “I loved going into people’s homes, one-on-one. That was what I wanted to do and I’ve done it ever since.”
In her first year with VNA she worked in the Edison-Metuchen area. “I would do the hands-on nursing for people who came out of the hospital — wound care, cardiac, all varieties of patients.”
Then, in 1982, Reynolds became one of the first nurses involved in the field of case management, coordinating services for patients, a new profession under the umbrella of nursing and social work. She was a participant in a channeling demonstration project, a pilot program which showed the effectiveness in cost and life quality of providing services to keep people in their own homes rather than in facilities.
Reynolds learned how to do comprehensive assessments to determine the patient’s level of care and basic needs. “Medical, psychological, and physical functionality all come into play,” Reynolds said. “How do you get your groceries? How do you get to the doctor? Who helps you with your medications? Are you getting bathed every day? Is your house clean? Is your house safe? Do you have grab bars in your bathroom? Do you have a shower chair? Who helps you?”
The statistics showed that “we can keep people in their homes for a fraction of what it costs to keep them in a facility,” she said. Maybe a home health aide comes in for 15 hours a week to help people meet basic needs. Maybe all that person needs is someone to go to the store once a week, somebody to remind them to take their medications, or somebody to do their laundry.”
Reynolds worked for the Community Care Program for the Elderly and Disabled (CCPED) from 1983 to 2014, case managing Medicaid, Medicaid waiver programs, and Medicare services through the VNA. But 2014 brought a seismic shift in Reynolds’ career and her personal life.
The state was dismantling the CCPED (name changed to Global Options) and directing employees to one of five managed care firms in the state. Reynolds didn’t know whether she would stay with the VNA or with case management. “The job I loved and built was ending, and it was heartbreaking for me. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
And then in March 2014 Reynolds was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had to leave her job before it ended. “I was the one who wanted to stay to the end, but I had to take care of my breast cancer,” she said.
She underwent a mastectomy, chemo treatments, and three surgeries. She is now a five-year breast cancer survivor.
And after only six months she went back to work, first on discharge planning at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital (RWJ) in New Brunswick, then for the private care department with the VNA. But she missed doing case management. “I realized that’s what I was born to do. That’s where my expertise lies. I missed doing it for two years. I know the resources in the area and I know the providers. I know how to get the patients what they need. I know the health system and I know the Medicaid system and a lot of the people who work in the system. If patients have a problem, I’m usually able to help them negotiate it.”
Reynolds now works for WellCare Health Plans Inc., a company providing government-sponsored managed care services. “It’s a wonderful company to work for,” she said. “WellCare and I together will do whatever it takes to get people what they need.”
The focus of Reynolds’ work is patient-centered care planning. With new members every month, she goes to their homes to do a thorough assessment of their needs: medical history, medications, doctors, current home situation, “whatever we can provide to keep them home safely.”
Her current case load is 60 patients. She visits them regularly, sometimes at medical adult daycare centers and sometimes in their homes.
Among the resources Reynolds arranges might be home-based supportive care in the form of health aides; somebody to come in to help with shopping, cleaning, or other household needs; medical and non-medical transportation; private duty nursing; meals; even respite care so family caregivers can take a vacation.
Reynolds emphasized, “the passion I feel about case management services and how they really make a difference in people’s lives. We can help people get what they need and help them navigate the often confusing system.” She added, “I’ve had an incredible nursing career.”
In 2007 Reynolds was nominated for the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Nursing, and in 2008 she was the Visiting Nurse Association Nurse of the Year. She has lived for the past 22 years with her husband Steve in Griggstown.
“She is a great nurse,” said Nora Luftman, Reynolds’ longtime friend and colleague who now works as a case manager with Amerigroup. Luftman went on to reflect on the nature of that greatness. “She’s one of the best nurses I’ve ever known. She sets the bar very high for herself and gives 110 percent.”
She continued, “Caring about another person as an individual is the essence of nursing, and that’s one of the things Suzanne does best.”