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Meet Karen Zink, MS '87, CNP

Owner, Southwest Women's Health Associates

Karen Zink, CNP, MS, traces her interest in nursing to her mother, Marilyn Mason Short, whom she describes as “a fine diploma nurse.” Zink’s penchant for leadership may be tied to her mother as well. After all, her mother took the initiative to set up the first emergency department in Mercy Hospital in Durango, Colo., where Zink grew up.

By age nine, Zink had already witnessed illness, birth and death, having grown up on a farm and tending her own flock of sheep as leader of a 4-H club. She often accompanied her mother to work and was reading her mother’s nursing journals at 14. “My mother was a very strong and influential woman,” Zink says. She was the nurse to our very large, extended family until she died of an aneurysm at 59.” From that point, Zink became the “family/neighborhood nurse.”

“In those days, diploma programs were turning out crisp, rigorous nurses,” says Zink, whose first formal training was in the diploma program at Mercy Hospital. “It was a very hands-on, skills-oriented approach to training great hospital nurses.”

Zink didn’t stop with her diploma. After earning a BSN from Loretto Heights College, she earned a master’s degree from the CU College of Nursing (1987), and a just a few years later put up her brand-new car as collateral (a friend put up her house) to found Southwest Women’s Health Associates in Durango. Zink has been the clinic’s sole owner since 2000.

Southwest Women’s Health Associates is the only such clinic in the area, she says, offering primary and preventative care for women, as well as GYN care such as endometrial biopsies, colposcopies and contraceptive care.

Zink’s interest in women’s health stems from her own experience after taking a childbirth class followed by two difficult cesarean births. “I felt compelled to advocate for women based on those experiences. There were hardly any women health care providers at that time. It was a male doctor’s world without a clue about the experience of living in a woman’s body, from menstruation, to giving birth, to menopause.”

“Durango is a resort community flooded with physicians—plenty of specialists, but not a lot of primary care docs,” Zink says. “So our clinic’s nurse practitioners and nurses fill the gap by providing that care to the community.” Southwest Women’s Health Associates sees patients ranging in age from 14 to 90.

Before she founded the clinic, Zink recalls, she and a fellow College of Nursing master’s graduate were working for an OB-GYN physician who cut their hours. Then they went to work for primary care docs who paid $11 an hour. That didn’t sit well for long.

“I interviewed for a position at a hospital [back in the eighties] and the hiring manager took one look at my résumé and said, ‘You’re overqualified.’ I knew then I wasn’t a good candidate for a staff nursing position at that time.”

Zink credits the College of Nursing with helping make Southwest Women’s Health Associates possible. “The faculty—especially Colette Kerlin and Joyce Roberts—were very helpful and creative. They figured out how we could take our credits to fit the requirements of the National Certification Corporation Board exam.” The college also created an outreach program in Durango, which helped to jumpstart the clinic.

“It took us about 15 years to nail a great staff,” she says. “We have a different philosophy from many other clinics. Our front desk people have business degrees, and our janitor, courier and laundry service are at the top of the ladder. If they don’t do their work, we can’t do ours.” That operating philosophy, aside from what she calls a “different view of our self-importance,” is “authority, accountability, and responsibility.”

Her leadership philosophy is likely rooted in her parents and the community, Zink says. “There was no room for arrogance or being full of oneself. My mother was very careful to treat the janitorial and dietary staff with love, appreciation and respect.”

“I always wanted to be a leader. I’m a very outspoken advocate for what I believe in.”​