Carrying the Umbrella of Public Health
State Senator Jeanne Nicholson didn’t strictly transition from a 40-plus-year career in nursing to state politics. Rather, she says, “I brought nursing with me …I’m still in practice, but in a unique environment.”
Nicholson, BS ’65, MS ’99, represents District 16, which comprises Gilpin County and portions of Boulder, Denver and Jefferson counties.
Most public issues fall under the public health umbrella—whether it’s safe roads, clean drinking water or fire mitigation, she says.
One of the reasons Nicholson parlayed her public health nursing background into government was to break into what she regards as the inner circle. “I was becoming more and more frustrated with the idea that all levels of government didn’t make good decisions about public health,” she says. “They didn’t seem to listen or understand. To make an impact, someone with a public health background needed to run for office who could be part of the inner circle. Trying to influence from the outside doesn’t have as much impact.”
During the flooding early last fall, Nicholson knocked on doors to check on constituents who were affected, particularly in Superior, and made calls to Coal Creek Canyon residents where road damage prevented access to visits. “They thought they had to entertain me,” she says, “but I assured them I wasn’t a priority unless they needed something from me. I walk a fine line; I care, but I don’t want to be in the way.”
When she was four years old, Nicholson declared to her family that she wanted to be a nurse. “My elderly grandfather lived with us, and when my sister would go out to play, I stayed inside to look after him.” Nicholson also was exposed to public service at an early age; her father was a member of the state legislature. “The message in our home was, ‘You can do anything you want as long as you work hard,’” she says. “‘And if you see a problem, you should try to solve it; don’t assume somebody else should.’“
Nicholson has twice been a Luminary, or finalist, for the Nightingale Award for Excellence in Human Caring, with glowing nominations from Gilpin, Jefferson, Boulder and Larimer Counties for her devotion to public health policy. In the 2009 nomination, the executive director of the Jefferson County Department of Health and Environment cited Nicholson’s “passion for the nursing profession; a dedicated enthusiasm for public health; a devotion to those to whom she was providing care, and a practical understanding of the political process.” Also that year, Nicholson received Children’s Champion Award for her work in promoting the importance of early childhood development.
Early in her nursing career, Nicholson worked at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, for the Gunnison Community Hospital and the Colorado West Mental Health Center, for a private physician practice in Winter Park and for a nursing home in Cañon City.
During the past 24 years in what she describes as her “traditional” career in public health, Nicholson was the Gilpin County nurse, Maternal and Child Program manager for the Boulder County Health Department, a public health nursing consultant for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and “finally, the nurse supervisor for the Intermountain Nurse Family Partnership Program.”
She was president of the Colorado County Nurses Association and the Colorado Public Health Association (CPHA) and district resident of the Colorado Nurses Association. In 2008 she received the CPHA Legislative Award for her work as a county commissioner on the design, drafting and passage of SB 08-194, the Omnibus Public Health Improvement Act.
Nicholson also served on Colorado Counties, Inc. (CCI) Board of Directors and the Colorado Child Welfare Allocation Committee. She chaired the Health and Human Services Steering committee for CCI and chaired the Colorado Commission on Family Medicine. In 2005, she was named Colorado Commissioner of the Year.
She’s most pleased about the passage of her bills to provide better oral health care for limited income children and adults, a bill to improve patient outcomes, and her bill to protect children from abuse and neglect.
Nicholson encourages nurses to get involved in government. “We need more voices in the inner circle,” she says.
For her contributions to improving the quality of life and impact on the health care system, in 2015 the College of Nursing Alumni Association will honor Senator Nicholson with a Lifetime Achievement Award.