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December 2, 2016 Health Care Heroes 2016

Ash prevents diseases by treating patients as partners

PHOTO | Contributed

Whether she's working in the pulmonary rehab clinic at Hartford Hospital or out in the community administering flu shots to underserved residents, Jenifer Ash never sees patients. She sees partners.

Consider a recent pulmonary case. The woman, suffering from advanced lung disease, sought help from Ash and her team to keep the damage at bay, but continued to make poor lifestyle choices that exacerbated her condition.

Instead of lecturing her, Ash simply asked the woman to come up with a list of goals, which included living independently and being able to walk and shop. Together, they devised a plan for how she would achieve them. The woman said it was the first time a medical professional had treated her as an equal.

“I said, 'Absolutely, you are the center,' ” Ash recalled. Giving patients a say in how they choose to get healthy is key, she said, both for preventing chronic diseases and keeping existing ones from progressing.

“Instead of telling them 'This is what I want you to do.' I tell them, 'This is where you're at. This is what you have. What is it that you want to accomplish?' ” she explained. “You want to attend your granddaughter's wedding? Let's get you healthy so you can do that.”

As a nurse practitioner who also holds a master's degree in public health, Ash, who leads the APRN (advanced practice registered nurse) team in the Department of Medicine, has focused much of her career on prevention.

Each year, she leads a Hartford Hospital collaboration with area nursing schools and the city of Hartford to administer flu and pneumonia shots to underserved members of the community, setting up clinics in homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

Thousands of people are hospitalized each year and sometimes die from preventable diseases in the U.S., Ash noted, simply because they failed to get a shot. Increasing vaccination rates, she said, can slow the spread of disease in a community.

“If we didn't go out there, many of those patients don't have access [to health care],” she said. Many are uninsured or underinsured, or are undocumented immigrants fearful of being deported. “They wouldn't necessarily come to a healthcare institution or seek the vaccination themselves. But by going to them, we help improve the vaccination rates.”

Ash also leads the inpatient immunization program within the hospital, an effort that has dramatically increased the hospital's vaccination rates.

One of Ash's main areas of prevention focuses on pulmonary health and reducing rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and a frequent cause of hospitalization. She counsels patients in smoking cessation, exercise programs and other ways to improve lung function, and also conducts asthma screenings at health fairs.

She said the best part of her job is “seeing that lightbulb go off” when a patient resolves to take control of their health.

“People don't live forever, but you can change how they live,” she said.

A Massachusetts native, Ash's career at Hartford Hospital began in 1996. She earned her bachelor's degree in nursing from Boston College in 1993 and her master's from UConn in 2002. Her passion for chronic disease management and prevention prompted her to return to UConn, where she earned a master's in public health in 2005.

As a child, she always knew she wanted to take care of people. She decided to become a nurse while watching her father battle heart disease — inspired by the caring and compassion she saw in his healthcare providers.

Nurse educator Christine Rooney said Ash is known for bringing best practices to the hospital and for bridging the gap between nurses and practitioners, including doctors and APRNs.

A year ago, Rooney said, Ash drove an initiative that helped reduce the hospital's rate of catheter-associated urinary-tract infections by 30 percent through a massive retraining of every nurse that works with catheters. She also devised a system, Rooney said, where nurses could remove catheters more promptly without having to wait for a doctor's order.

Liza Nowicki, a simulation nurse educator at the hospital, said other nurses look to Ash for guidance, mentorship and expertise.

“She's so approachable and very humble,” Nowicki said. “Everyone feels comfortable bringing an issue to her. She always offers sound advice and credible ideas.”

Ash, in turn, said she wouldn't have success without her colleagues. “It really is a team approach,” she said. “It's together that you can make a difference.”

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