Jan Fritz to be named Health Care Community Advocate
Cancer services director to be honored at Doc Willett awards
Steamboat Springs — It was a Wednesday in 2003 when longtime local high school teacher Bill McKelvie got the news that his cancer had returned and was taking over his liver.
On Thursday, the phone rang again, but this time the voice on the other end of the line was Jan Fritz, Yampa Valley Medical Center’s director of cancer services.
“She was the first voice of hope,” McKelvie said. “I mean, I was doomed on Wednesday.
“To this day, every time I see Jan, I hug her. I’ll tell you, she saved my life. She’s so dedicated; she has given so much of herself to those cancer patients and those families that are battling cancer. She’s just superwoman.”
But to Fritz, who has worked as a nurse in the Yampa Valley since 1986, she is just there to help folks navigate the terrifyingly unclear world of cancer care.
“They are the ones taking the journey,” Fritz said about her patients. “I’m just the one walking beside them and giving them the glue to keep their lives together. They’re doing it themselves.”
McKelvie isn’t the only one to recognize Fritz’s contributions to the community in her 20 years here, which include launching a hospice program through the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association as well as starting the hospital’s chemotherapy center in 1990.
Fritz will be recognized at tonight’s annual Doc Willett Health Care Heritage Awards as this year’s Health Care Community Advocate. The reception begins at 7 p.m. at Strings Music Pavilion. Being honored alongside Fritz is Dr. Lambert Orton, who will be named the Health Care Professional of the Year.
The Doc Willett Awards are named after the area’s longtime country doctor who for 56 years put his patients and his community before anything else.
Katy Thiel, a social worker at the hospice program, said she thinks the award is fitting for Fritz, her longtime mentor.
“It goes back to that old-school medicine, where people aren’t afraid to make home visits and make this their lives and be there for their community,” Thiel said.
Just this past Fourth of July, Thiel got a call from Fritz saying a patient needed them immediately. Barbecues and fireworks could wait.
McKelvie had a similar story: Several years ago, Fritz showed up to personally administer his chemotherapy cocktail on Labor Day, when everyone else was off.
But Fritz has her own journey to balance, as well.
In the early 1990s when Fritz was helping to launch YVMC’s new chemotherapy center and the VNA’s hospice program, she had three young daughters. There were dance classes, track meets and soccer games. Today, it’s weddings. The girls needed her as a mother, and she was there.
She was also there for her hundreds of patients.
Now the full-time Director of cancer services since 2008, Fritz walks with purpose through the hallways of YVMC, her Blackberry nearly glued to her face. Every one of her patients is listed by name in her phone, so she knows how important a call is when she picks it up.
She schedules appointments, answers questions about side effects and shares in the joys of their smallest achievements.
“Cancer care isn’t what defines them,” Fritz said. “It happens to be what is happening to them right now. We want them to have a normal life. We’ll change your schedule so that we can get to your son’s lacrosse game. You get to know all of these patients on a different level. You learn to know what’s important to them.”
For Mike Lewis, a local resident who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma last fall, his life used to be about skiing, golfing and biking.
About a week ago, he got on his bike for the first time in almost a year after chemo and stem cell therapy.
He said Fritz was there every step of the way, and tears came to his eyes as he talked about her influence during the rocky 12 months he’s been through.
“Saint is even trite,” Lewis said. “She’s a supremely caring individual. What’s cool about the way she handles things is that she’s so low key. She’s your best friend.”
And whether it’s getting Lewis back on his bike, finding gas money for a patient to get to radiation therapy or simply making a person more comfortable to die in their own home, Fritz is going to continue to dedicate her time and energy to those who need her.
“I don’t break down,” she said. “I think about it, and there are times when the tears are flowing for them.
“I know for myself where my faith is, and I know all of us are going to have hard times and will face death. And there are a lot of prayers. I guess it’s just being able to recognize what is the most important thing today. And most of the time, it has something to do with a patient.”
— To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@SteamboatToday.com
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The 20th anniversary season of Opera Steamboat will kick off this month with a new series, the “Variations Piano Series,” bringing world-class pianists from across the country to Steamboat Springs.