Honoring our Alumni in Healthcare
Lifelong friendships formed during high school have created comfort and laughter for Penny (Gorecki) Grande, M.S., R.N. through the years. That reliable network of friendships became an even greater support over the past year.
“I grew up literally three blocks from St. Thomas More, so I could walk to school,” recalled Grande (TM ’96), who grew up on S. New York Avenue near Fernwood Elementary School. “I played softball. I was in cheerleading. Those were big pieces of my St. Thomas More time.”
Lessons instilled at St. Thomas More continue to resonate decades later, according to Grande. “We learned the same sort of values, the social justice, that is a piece from St. Thomas More.”
“Five of us from high school are still close. We travel together,” said Grande. “We used to do three-way calling, and since the pandemic, we catch up every other week on Zoom. We solve the world’s problems on Thursday nights now.”
Grande now lives in suburban Denver with her husband, Chris, and their children, Anna and Joey. She first moved to Colorado to attend graduate school at the University of Colorado, where she earned her master’s degree in nursing with an emphasis in public health.
As director of nursing for the Tri-County Health Department, which serves three suburban Denver counties, Grande knows firsthand what it means to care for others on a larger scale. She also worked through the last pandemic, H1N1, colloquially known as “Swine Flu,” in 2009.
In fact, the H1N1 pandemic was one of her first thoughts when she and her colleagues first heard about the novel coronavirus in December 2019.
“By February 2020, we knew ‘gosh, this is going to be big.’ I don’t think anyone expected this, though. The asymptomatic transmission was the scariest part of the whole thing because you never knew who was spreading it.”
Over the past year, Grande has helped coordinate community care for more than a million people in her region, including providing access to healthcare and vaccine rollouts during the pandemic.
“We were providing essential services from the beginning,” explained Grande. “We were trying to do all the work we do with less staff, then remotely. I had a lot of meetings about masks — where to buy them, who can make them.” For Grande and her colleagues, the question always was, “how do we keep people safe?”
Grande believes the most important elements of her work in public health are communication, education, and prevention. The pandemic has heightened awareness for the public health field and demonstrated the necessity for healthcare workers.
“Public health really prides itself on prevention; we want to be ‘upstream.’ By the time you are sick, we have already failed. We want to see the data and prevent problems. That means healthy eating, healthy lifestyles, and prevention medications like immunizations — until there is a pandemic. Then we shift to response mode. We are responsible for organizing things, making sure communication is happening between hospitals and first responders, and collecting data,” among many other tasks.
She sees parallels to her work in nursing and her time at St. Thomas More High School, too.
“I always say my cheerleading experience comes in handy with this job. Sometimes you just need to be like, ‘You can do this!’”
Grande encourages students interested in serving others to consider nursing as a profession. Today’s St. Thomas More students can enroll in the Nursing Assistant Certification Program, which provides participants with the skills, experience, and professional certification — the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) credential — required for both short- and long-term career success in healthcare.
“The best thing about nursing is that there are so many paths,” said Grande. “Even if you don’t like blood, you can get through most of nursing school without blood. It is a flexible field, and it is such a calling. On an individual level, especially in public health, you have an impact every day.”
Grande (right) at TM Cheerleading
About the Author
Kristine Kierzek is a freelance journalist who writes a regular food and lifestyle column for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She lives in Bay View with her husband, José Acevedo, and their daughters, Sofia and Elena. She is a member of the STM Communications Committee.