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Nursing legend who brought cancer treatment, hospice to Yampa Valley retiring soon

Director of Cancer Services Jan Fritz will be retiring from UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center after three decades of service including bringing oncology treatment to patients here in Northwest Colorado so they don’t have to travel long distances for care.
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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — After 34 years of giving, Jan Fritz is leaving Steamboat Springs for a much deserved forever vacation, as she calls it.

The 71-year-old may be heading to the West Coast to be close to family, but she leaves behind a much-lauded career in her time as a nurse and caregiver in the Yampa Valley.

“She’s the most caring person I’ve ever met,” was the same quote from both a patient and cancer doctor who have known Fritz for years.

After all, the Indiana-born Fritz has had plenty of time to prove it since moving to Steamboat Springs in 1986.

From her time at the former Routt Memorial Hospital to her time at the Visiting Nurses Association to her obsession with building up local cancer care, Fritz has touched many lives in a way few can.

“She’s usually the calm in the middle of the storm,” said Kristi Tullis, colleague and nurse at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “When everything is going crazy, she’s the one who can pull it all together and keep it straight in her head.”

It’s a talent Fritz needed in her long career. At one point, she was doing home health care, working in hospice and developing an oncology program for patients in rural Northwest Colorado — all while raising three daughters.

But in true Jan Fritz fashion, she didn’t look at it as work.

“I loved it all. I couldn’t just decide on one thing. I was getting a lot of things going,” Fritz said in between her rounds as director of cancer services at the UCHealth Jan Bishop Cancer Center in Steamboat. 

Dr. Allen Cohn, an oncologist, remembered about 25 years ago getting a call from a persistent Fritz who was determined to have patients treated in Steamboat. Five cancer doctors had already given up on traveling to Steamboat to treat patients.

But Cohn was impressed when he came down to talk with Fritz.

“She had already been doing a lot of oncology care with patients,” said Cohn, who eventually became the go-to oncologist for the medical center.

“She’s just incredibly organized, and instead of saying, ‘We can’t do this,’ she says, ‘Let’s find a way to make it work.’ She’s done so much for the community with cancer care,” said Cohn.

No one knows that better than 84-year-old patient Elaine Deupree, who is on her fourth cancer treatment in 12 years. 

She remembers Fritz and her oncologist Dr. Robert Rifkin — Cohn’s partner — cutting through administrative red tape to keep her from being moved during a bad hospital bout.

“She absolutely advocates for her patients,” Deupree said from her Craig home.

“Dr. Rifkin and Jan (Fritz) wanted to give me my chemo treatment in the hospital, but they (admin) wanted me to check out of the hospital, go to the medical office building to have chemo, then come back. They said, ‘No way we’re moving her!’ They argued my case for an hour and a half, and they won,” Deupree said.

It’s Fritz’s attention to that kind of detail that makes her stand out.

“She is cancer care in Northwest Colorado,” Cohn said. “She’s so devoted to her patients. They have her cellphone number, she does home visits, deals with families. Just an incredible asset to the community who’s going to be missed. Hard shoes to fill.”

Colleagues say thanks in part to Fritz’s tireless love for her work and patients, the community opened a state-of-the-art cancer center in 2017 where patients from Northwest Colorado can get their cancer treatment infusions while looking out at the Steamboat mountains instead of traveling to the Front Range or other big cities.

For years, Fritz would have to borrow rooms and space where her cancer patients could be treated since there was no dedicated hospital space for cancer treatments.

Fritz is also credited with getting certified hospice care for locals back in the 1990s. She and others also started the Bust of Steamboat, now called the Yampa Valley Breast Cancer Awareness Project, which provides funds for free mammograms and breast cancer patients who still have to receive specialized treatment in big cities.

Her commitment to the local community has won her numerous awards including the prestigious Hazie Werner Award, the Colorado Florence Nightingale Award and the Doc Willett Health Care Heritage Award.

When asked about the biggest changes she’s seen in cancer care, Fritz said immunotherapy, which targets individuals with specialized treatment.

“We used to think we treated all the colon cancers the same way, but we’re learning so much about genetics. Even though you have the same cancer, you may not respond the same way. Immunotherapy has changed cancer care tremendously,” Fritz said. 

Fritz and her husband, Greg, will be moving to the coastal town of Tulare, Washington, where they plan to do a lot of fishing, crabbing and traveling. Their three children, Jessica, Jennifer and Abby, all reside on the West Coast, as well. Fritz’s retirement will be effective Sep. 4.

Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.


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