Venango VNA Foundation Throughout the Years
Founded in 1984, The Venango County Visiting Nurses Association (VNA) Foundation was established to support the VNA of Venango County and its efforts in the community.
Currently, the VNA Foundation funds a variety of programs that benefit the community and its residents. These include charity care for patients of VNA/non-reimbursable services, blood pressure clinics, bereavement support groups that meet monthly, caregiver support group and stroke support group.
Longtime VNA Executive Director Nerlich Leaves Rich with Agency
*This article was published in The Derrick on July 21st, 2003. Jim Davis, now retired, was the Opinion Page Editor.
Ruthanne Nerlich knew it was time to go. All the signs were there.
At 66, she found herself wanting to spend more time with her five grandchildren. And there was the lure of the boat on Lake Erie and the cottage at Conneaut Lake. And she was oh so comfortable with the people who would follow in her footsteps.
So, when it came time to actually retire as chief executive officer of the Visiting Nurses Association of
Venango County (VNA), Nerlich was caught off guard by the waves of emotion that swept over her. It has been a couple of weeks now since she relinquished that title, yet Nerlich is still easily moved to tears when she thinks about it all. ” Even though I made the decision myself” she says, her voice trailing off as the tears start to flow again. “It was tough.”
She was there at the outset, when home health care in Venango County consisted of two nurses — one in Franklin and one in Oil City — each restricted to assisting patients within a six-mile radius of the city. She was there to pull off what many thought was the impossible — merging the Franklin and Oil City branches into one entity. And she has been there for three decades as the fledgling agency with a $35,000 annual bud get grew into a well-respected behemoth that carries health care into homes throughout Venango County — on a $5 million budget.
Through it all, the name Ruthanne Nerlich has been synonymous with the VNA. It is hardly an overstatement to claim that this is “the house that Ruthanne built.” And in a way, it all started by accident.
A Pittsburgh native, Nerlich graduated from the University of Pittsburgh Nursing Program in 1960. That was followed by stints in the pediatric cardiology department at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh; at the Jersey City Medical Center (when her husband, Bernie, was transferred to New York City); and later at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, where she was a nursing instructor.
The Nerlichs then decided to start a family, and Ruthanne wanted to stay home with the children, Bernie and Bethanne. That was still her plan when the family moved to Franklin in 1965, after her husband took a job with Franklin Steel.
To keep in touch with the nursing profession, she became a member of the Franklin Graduate Nurses Club. It was at one of their meetings that her life took a drastic turn. In 1969, Jean Taylor, the Franklin District Nurse, told Nerlich that due to changes in Medicare, her office was going to close. Nerlich, who had some experience in the home health care field during her stay in Allegheny County, was distressed by the news. She and several other club members decided that an effort should be made to get a visiting nurse association in Franklin. Nerlich says they knew that Medicare certification was crucial — and that the only way to get certified was to have a countywide agency. “Our goal was to form an agency in Franklin and then merge with Oil City to form a countywide agency,” she says.
Nerlich became president of the board for the fledgling Franklin association in 1970, and soon set up a meeting with officials in Oil City to discuss a merger. “I don’t have to tell you what a challenge that was,” she laughs.
But, in 1971, with a huge assist from Dodie Elder, president of the Oil City board, the two agencies came together to form the Visiting Nurses Association of Venango County. Nerlich was named chairman of the board. ” It took a lot of people to make it happen,” she says. Nerlich rattles off plenty of names, a few of which were Avonelle Irwin and Josephine McCracken, early organizers on the Franklin side of things; attorney Ralph Montgomery, who donated early legal services; Rodney Campbell, an accountant who handled all the book work; and Millie Lee, the Oil City nurse who stepped in as director of clinical services for the county VNA. Thanks to the efforts of those people and dozens more, the VNA got off to a solid start, offering visiting nurses and physical therapists to people in need.
In 1973, the executive director of the agency left the area — and left a gaping hole at the top of the organizational chart. Medicare required that the post be filled by a nurse with a degree, and the agency experienced considerable difficulty finding anyone to take the job. Finally the board turned to Nerlich, asking her to step in on an interim basis. She laughs at the memory. ” That’s how I came to be employed.” And she stayed. For 30 years.
Nerlich says she never planned on becoming an administrator, but is glad she did. “Somehow, I just felt natural in this. Even though I wasn’t doing hands-on nursing, I was providing other people with the ability to do it,” she says. “And, there was never a day I didn’t want to come to work.” As the budget grew in the intervening 30 years, the number of employees expanded to the point that there are now 165 people on staff.
In 2002, the home health care and hospice services combined to make 39,900 visits. The VNA also logged 87,000 private-duty hours. In any given month, the census is generally around 480. Services were added as demand dictated, she says. Today, in addition to visiting nurses and physical therapists, the VNA employs speech therapists, occupational therapists, social workers, home health aides and mental health nurses. It also offers hospice care and support groups for a variety of target areas. Private-duty services were added in 1984. “Anything you need, from one hour to 24, is available in private duty,” Nerlich says. Whatever the service, however, the mission is always the same: to provide necessary medical services to people in their homes. “How many people we’ve kept in their own homes!” she marvels.
To ensure that the work can continue, the VNA formed a foundation in 1984 to handle fund-raising. It now has a bankroll of $1.4 million, and VNA only uses the interest. The principal is untouched. The agency also operates Sugar Creek Station, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation center, and Sugar Valley Lodge, a personal care facility housed in the old Venango Manor. Nerlich will join the board of Sugar Valley Lodge now that she is retired, and admits she takes great pride in the facility. It is almost 100 percent a charitable organization, receiving no Medicare or Medicaid funding, and 90 percent of its residents are low-income. There are a lot of people in the county who need 2
4-hour supervision and assistance, but who can’t afford to pay for it, Nerlich says.
“These people would have no place else to go. They’re people who have health problems who don’t have a home. If we weren’t there, I don’t know where these people would go.” The residents are largely elderly, but also consist of some younger people with mental health problems. Two of the residents literally were living beneath a bridge before landing at Sugar Valley Lodge. On the down side, the building has room for 84 people, but the current patient load is just 62, due to financial considerations. Nerlich explains that Sugar Valley Lodge receives just $29 a day for each low-income reside
nt. This results in a $4,200-a-year shortfall — per patient — meaning that largesse from the community is essential for survival. Several local trust funds help keep it afloat.
And now, in her new role as “just” a board member, Nerlich will keep an eye on the operation. “I think I can really be helpful there,” she says. As for the VNA, Nerlich is more than comfortable with those who will carry on the work without her.
Pat Kaufman, who has been with VNA since 1976, most recently as assistant CEO, has stepped into the top position. “I knew very early on that she would be the future here,” Nerlich says. “She’s just wonderful.” Nerlich voices similar thoughts about Jane Culp, the administrator at Sugar Valley Lodge, and Nancy Pastorius, director at Sugar Creek Station. ” I was really able to leave without missing a beat at any of those places,” she says. Kaufman, for her part, has nothing but kind words for her former boss.
“(Ruthanne’s) made the VNA what it is. She’s a pioneer. She was responsible for its development, and she’s overseen its growth right along,” Kaufman says. She says many people have told her that Nerlich is the VNA. “What a wonderful way to end a career. She’s just been such an asset to the community, and certainly to the health care community.”
Nerlich is quick to note that she didn’t do it alone. In fact, she says she owes a considerable debt to the Rev. Reginald Moore, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Franklin during the formative years of the VNA. Moore, who now lives in Erie, served on the Franklin District Nurses board, and later on the VNA board. He had a piece of advice that Nerlich says she has never forgotten: “If you are doing the right thing, God will provide and you will be able to do what you’re planning.” As the years went by and problems arose, they always seemed to work themselves out, Nerlich says, and when they did, she always reflected on Rev. Moore’s words.
“I really used that,” she says. “That really was my guide through all the years.” UPMC Northwest’s CEO Neil Todhunter also played a major role through the years, Nerlich says. VNA’s close ties with the health system have been vital, and Todhunter has been a particular advocate for the agency. “He has always recognized the value of home health and the VNA. That is really not the case with many of my friends (in the health care industry) around the country,” she says.
Community support, having doctors who believe in the concept, and having committed and talented board members have been instrumental in the success of the VNA, but Nerlich has a particular fondness for the people who really make the system work — the providers themselves. “It’s the people who go into the homes who are really what we are.”
“There are just wonderful people here,” she says, the tears reappearing. ” It takes a special person to work in home care.” Her colleagues would say it takes one to know one.