Award-winning nurse believes in the Golden Rule

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Jan Runbeck is the recipient of the UW Tacoma 2009 Distinguished Alumni Award. She was one of the country's first nurse practitioners, and generously volunteers her time and knowledge.

Jan Runbeck is the sort of person who gets things done for other people. She was one of the country's first nurse practitioners, has generously volunteered her time and knowledge, and is currently starting a health-care clinic in a Tacoma food bank. Today she receives the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Washington Tacoma in recognition of her achievements. The award is given annually to an outstanding UW Tacoma alumnus or alumna who inspires students or has made significant contributions in their careers and community service.

In the 1970s, doctors were in short supply at Cle Elum County Hospital District. Jan Runbeck, a registered nurse who worked in the hospital's emergency room, routinely triaged patients, ran lab work and operated the X-ray machine. Seeing her capabilities, the hospital's medical director asked her to apply for a new program training rural nurses to do some of the patient care that, previously, only doctors could do. But the majority of rural emergency room patients don't need to see a doctor, Runbeck said.

"There weren't enough RNs and MDs to serve the Upper Kittitas County, and I could fill the gap," Runbeck said. She became one of the first nurse practitioners in the United States and soon was diagnosing sinus infections, stitching up cuts and prescribing antibiotics - freeing doctors for more serious injuries and illnesses.

"The patients were happy to be seen immediately and then have their follow-up care with their own doctor. The doctors were relieved to not have to come in for the more minor disorders. The RNs were glad for the extra help," Runbeck remembered.

Runbeck grew up working in her father's granite and bronze memorial manufacturing company, but left to pursue a career in nursing when she was 17. She studied at Tacoma General Hospital and later earned her nurse practitioner certificate at Good Samaritan Hospital and Medical Center in Portland. She also studied demography in India and completed a bachelor's degree in geography at Central Washington University. Shortly after that, she returned to the family business when her father was diagnosed with cancer. Runbeck and her husband, Mike Mowat, bought the company and ran it for 18 years before selling it.

Then she really got to work.

At 51 years of age, Runbeck went back to school, earning a master in nursing degree from UW Tacoma in 2006. "I had the time and the money, and I wanted the mental exercise," she said.

"Nursing is a broad enough field of study that it can offer competence and connectivity in a variety of environments. The UW Tacoma Nursing program staff and faculty were very supportive in encouraging me to re-establish my nursing license."

Among other volunteer efforts, Runbeck has worked with the U.S. Public Health Service, offering aid to Cuban refugees. She also worked with the American Refugee Committee as a public health supervisor in a refugee camp in Thailand. In acknowledgment of her service, she received a Vocational-Technical Award from the International Rotary Foundation.

For the past few years, Runbeck has worked closely with local community agencies to address the lack of health care for underserved populations.

"Jan has a vision that low-income people with chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol should be able to obtain basic medical services, regularly seeing providers and obtaining affordable medications and supplies for their conditions," said Janet Primomo, RN, Ph.D., an associate professor in UW Tacoma's Nursing program. Receiving such care would help prevent complications such as stroke and heart attacks for this population, she added.

To that end, Runbeck organized a partnership between community agencies, the Southeast FISH Food Bank and UW Tacoma master's students and faculty, who conducted a community health needs assessment. This summer a free health clinic will open at the food bank for customers with chronic diseases. Runbeck worked on grant proposals and was successful in obtaining membership in RotaCare, a nonprofit corporation that provides free medical care to those who have the most need and the least access.

Runbeck's other activities include active membership in the Pierce County Medical Reserve Corps, working with Project Homeless Connect to provide health care to vulnerable people in the county, and assisting with flu shot clinics throughout the county.

"Jan is one of the most passionate and capable advocates for under-served communities that I have ever known," Primomo said.

Runbeck said her motivation for serving others comes down to her gratitude for the good fortune she has enjoyed and a desire to treat others in the same way she would want to be treated.

June 10, 2009
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or