Care-Force One

In the
pilot’s seat

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

vna0317For the last five years, as president and CEO, Judy Peterson, RN, BSN, has steered the fortunes of the Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties from its administrative offices in Colchester.

Last year, caregivers from the Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties made 82,494 home visits to Vermonters in its area of influence. That translated into 407,453 hours of in-home care.

Since its founding in 1906, the largest of Vermont’s VNAs has grown into a sturdy, far-reaching care organization that incorporates not only home health care services for adults and families, but also hospice and palliative care; community-care services that include private, in-home care for adults with disabilities, seniors, and persons with memory impairments; a long-term care program; and an adult day program.

The organization’s most recent large project has been the building and opening of its McClure Miller VNA Respite House in Colchester last year. It replaced the aging J. Warren and Lois McClure Vermont Respite House in Williston, where land constraints made expansion impossible.

Steady at the helm stands Judy Peterson, RN, its president and CEO since 2012 when she was hired to succeed the retiring Church Hindes. It’s hard to picture someone better qualified to run this behemoth.

Peterson is a self-described “Vermonter through and through” — born and raised on a dairy farm in North Walden. Her father’s were the Vermont roots in the family; her mother, a Bridgeport, Connecticut, native whom he met on leave one day when he was serving in World War II.

They lived in Bridgeport for a year after their marriage, until he realized he couldn’t live happily in the city, and they moved to Vermont. “She’d never seen a cow before they came to Vermont,” Peterson says.

Peterson was a junior at Hardwick Academy in 1968 when her guidance counselor suggested that her love of science might serve her well in medicine, and that she consider joining a group of students visiting the nursing school in Burlington. “I said, OK. It sounded like a day off for me.” She laughs.

What she saw impressed her. “I remember sitting back and thinking, ‘Wow! They just seem to care so much about what they’re doing for the patient.’ It made me feel like this was something I wanted to do.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from The University of Vermont in 1973 and joined the Peace Corps, spending some two and a half years as head nurse of a rural health clinic in Costa Rica.

Back in Vermont came another six months at Central Vermont Medical Center, “just re-acclimating to the Western health care system,” she says; for the next six months she ran a free people’s health clinic in Philadelphia.

“Living in Latin America really helped me understand the world in a different way — the injustices that exist. I’ve always felt that I wanted to have work that was meaningful to me, and I wanted to be doing work for underserved populations.”

Peterson then sought home health care work in Vermont, something she had seen the impact of when she was in Costa Rica — “what they call now the social determinants of health. That is, your health is not dependent on the health care you receive, but is highly dependent on your economic status, nutrition — those things that determine that we’re as healthy as we can be.”

Over the next few years, she did public health nursing with several agencies including the Waterbury Public Health Association, the Lamoille Home Health Agency, and ultimately, Central Vermont Home Health Agency (CVHHA), where she was named CEO. By then, she had begun studying for her master’s degree.

She had also met Ron Peterson, an electrical contractor, whom she married in 1985. Not long after their marriage, Waterbury Public Health began talks with CVHHA about merging.

“I became pregnant, so I stepped down,” says Peterson, adding that she also put her studies on hold. Eileen Blake, the CEO of Waterbury Home Health, became president of the merged entity, CVHHA, and Peterson became vice president. When Blake retired a few years later, Peterson was named president.

Now a retired marketing professional, Brian Harwood was on the search committee for that position and eventually chaired the board. “Judy is not only delightful, but also super competent,” he says. “With all the turmoil going on in the health care business, she is forward thinking, very willing to examine change carefully, and very thorough in her due diligence.”

The Petersons would have two children — a son, Matt, in 1987, and a daughter, Katie, in ’89. Ron died 10 years ago.

She stayed with the agency, later named Central Vermont Home Health & Hospice, until 2012, when she was hired for her current position.

On that search committee was Martha Maksym, then executive director of the United Way of Chittenden County, and since January, deputy secretary of the Agency of Human Services. “She is an amazing person,” Maksym says.

“She has this wonderful, infectious laugh, and this lovely combination of being visionary and pragmatic at the same time. I think she has needed to make some very difficult decisions in her tenure, and she’s done all of that in a way that is mission-driven and thoughtful and respectful. She’s very well respected among the nonprofit leaders in the community.”

Peterson’s office sits on the second floor of the organization’s headquarters on Prim Road in Colchester. The building also houses an adult day care center, one of three the VNA runs. A satellite office in the Champlain Islands is “used by staff to fax information, use a phone, copy things,” she says.

Peterson seems to thrive on steering this craft and its 365 employees. “I spend a lot of time in meetings, some internal, some external,” she says, “and I’m communicating a lot with our own staff, but also with other health care partners. As you’re probably aware, we, meaning Vermont, are really working to transform the way we deliver health care. And nationally, there’s been health care reform going on, and the VNA is really integral to that.

“When you look at the goals of health care, they are: improve the care (outcomes), improve client satisfaction, and decrease cost — the Triple Aims. And home health just plays a major part in all three of them. By providing people’s care at home, we’re really able to take a holistic approach.”

This means, she says, “the ability to see a person as not just a fractured hip or a particular medical problem, but see their informal support systems: What’s their environment like, their nutrition? Do they have assistance devices for moving around the home? How do they manage their medication? Do they have supportive family or other people to help them get dressed in the morning?” These are not possible to judge when a person is seen in a nursing home or hospital.

“Vermont is unique and very fortunate,” she continues, “in that every city and town and valley and gore in Vermont is covered by a not-for-profit home health agency. And what’s important is that, as a nonprofit organization, we provide care according to need as opposed to ability to pay.”

VNA’s private care program provides non-medical, personal caregiving services to people at home who pay for the service. Profits help offset other VNA services where reimbursements don’t cover the cost of care.

Technology has produced significant changes in the ways care is done, says Peterson. “We deliver some very complex medical care in the home that heretofore was only provided in hospitals.” This includes caring for people at home on ventilators, and all kinds of intravenous therapy. A telemonitoring system remotely monitors vital signs that are reported to a central station on Prim Road, which can monitor about 80 people.

“The telemonitors look like little iPads and sit in the home and say, in the morning, ‘Good morning. It’s time to take your vital signs.’ Peripherals attached can take pulse, blood oxygen levels, blood pressure, and all this information is electronically transferred here to the nurse at the VNA.” If any red flags arise, the nurse follows up and sometimes will send someone out to the house.

The goal is to work as physician extenders — to be the eyes and ears of the physicians in people’s homes. To that end, progress is being made in developing closeness with primary care physicians. In addition, the VNA provides a large volume of rehabilitation services such as physical and occupational therapy and speech therapy.

Peterson does have a private life. She lives in Barre in summer, but rents a place in Burlington for the winter. Besides snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, she hikes and attends exercise classes. Cooking is her “hobby,” she says. “I really do love to cook. I have a partner in my life now, a man I met about five years ago, and we spend weekends cooking together. And he’s my travel companion. We go to Europe once a year and hike.”

She serves on several boards mostly related to the health industry, such as One Care Vermont, Blueprint for Health, the DAIL (Department of Aging and Independent Living) advisory board, and the population health committee of the Vermont Care Organization. She also volunteers for the Central Vermont Farmworker Coalition in support of migrant workers.

She occasionally joins staff on home visits, and continues to be “blown away with the level of care they’re providing in sometimes the most humble of surroundings.”

Peterson’s Vermont roots are significant in terms of her accomplishments, says Harwood. “She came from the Northeast Kingdom, and in grammar school was in a one-room schoolhouse. She’s exhibited all the things about good management that I think are important. She’s developed a very good support staff, and she’s a very good manager.” •