Citizen of the year: Mary Lenzini

Getting sick is a human condition, but so are healing, caring, and energy. Mary Lenzini, president and CEO of the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut and Citizen of the Year for the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, still wakes up every morning, as she nears 70, feeling privileged to be a nurse and excited to go to work.

The 3,500 patients annually tended to by the staff of the VNASC are fortunate as well. Under Mary Lenzini's leadership home health care has a silent subtitle: Everyone welcome. The agency provides home care to virtually any who need it, regardless of ability to pay. That gives everyone in eastern Connecticut a safety net and makes this a kinder place to live, whether well or ill.

And although the Citizen of the Year is chosen for past contributions to community and business, she is looking ahead. Her agency must adjust to national changes in health care policy and to operating under a new umbrella, the affiliated Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and Yale-New Haven Health Care.

What brings her pleasure every day is that the agency can provide top-flight care to people sick at home, to clients of the Homeless Hospitality Center, and to school children through the school nurse program.

Mary Lenzini runs the not-for-profit VNASC as a business, overseeing a staff of 234 and an annual budget of $17 million. The largest percentage of patients is covered by Medicare, and the second largest by Medicaid. Neither Medicaid nor most private insurance covers the basic cost of home health care. About a quarter of the agency's patients need and receive some financial aid, so she is a fundraiser, too.

A true representative of her generation, Mary Lenzini — she resumed using her family name after she remarried — learned as a Navy nurse in her early 20s that she could manage a hospital unit of 30 or more Marines her own age recovering from combat wounds suffered in Vietnam. She concluded, like many women around the same time, that she could do whatever she set out to do. 

Something of that 1970s empowerment ethic still infuses her work. VNASC operates with staff and patients as parts of a team. On the first home visit the nurse asks the patient, "What are your goals for recovery?" It might be "to walk to the end of the driveway" or "to go to my grandson's wedding." The nurse then prepares an answer to the question that will muster resources for recovery: "What exactly do you want to provide them with?"

Even though VNASC provides the school nurses in New London, Waterford, East Lyme and Groton and conducts clinics for flu shots, blood pressure screenings and senior health throughout the region, the mission still centers on enabling ailing people to recover at home.

Under Mary Lenzini's leadership, the VNA's focus has changed to reflect differences in what it means to be sick. Fewer patients suffer from acute infections, but as people live longer chronic conditions may need care. Home health care also allows early discharge after surgery and reduces the need for readmission to the hospital. Part of her effectiveness has been in making sure that nurses are also health educators, so that patients can learn to take care of themselves.

And that may be a hint of the next phase for the Citizen of the Year. Yale-New Haven had not been running a home health care agency until its affiliation with Lawrence & Memorial. Mary Lenzini would like to be around to see how the new hospital organization structures post-acute care and to help with those decisions. One focus may have to be on financial aid to patients, a need that dropped off slightly under the Affordable Care Act but is expected to rise again.

When Mary Lenzini was a young nurse, someone older and more experienced gave her a useful tip for a visiting nurse: Always wear a coat with a hood, because you won't have a free hand for an umbrella.

She has had her hands full ever since, but as she says, she has loved every minute and she is not ready to retire. And as the Citizen of the Year award proves, those hands are still doing great good.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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