Health care as a global language
German native, health center director pushing forward VNA’s mission of access to care
February 1, 2012
As a young girl growing up in Marl, a small northwest German town, Gisela Garrison always sensed she was destined to one day live among people in a foreign land.
Exactly where, however, was a mystery that wouldn't be resolved until many years later.
Marl, an industrial town for so long, had become dependent on the local coal industry.
Garrison's parents, Anne and Franz, were blue collar people who ran a small grocery store in town. They valued education, especially when it came to their daughter and their decision when she reached fifth grade reflected as much.
They had two choices, Garrison said. Continue with elementary school and let the path make its way to higher education, or transfer to a vocational school.
Garrison and her parents chose the former.
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They decided she should focus her attention on languages, and she studied and became fluent in English, Latin and French, in addition to her native German.
She also immersed herself in studying those cultures, and became particularly taken by American independence and self-reliance.
"There were a lot of similarities between Germany and the United States when I was growing up," Garrison said. "My parents understood the value of hard work and instilled that attitude in me, too.
"Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there has been a growing sense of entitlement among Germany's younger generations. They expect the government to give them everything."
Today, the 59-year-old Garrison said she feels at home in Craig, a town with its booming energy industry and blue collar mentality that isn't all that different from Marl.
Garrison is director of the Community Health Center, a program operated by the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.
After dedicating herself to languages early on, Garrison pursued medicine and earned a license as a pediatric physician in her homeland.
Shortly after becoming a doctor, she met and fell in love with an American student from the University of Philadelphia who was working on a doctorate in German literature.
The two married and started a family, raising their three children, Frank, Ben and Victoria, in typical German tradition.
"We spoke German because he was fluent," Garrison said. "And our kids began their education in German schools."
But as the family grew, Garrison's husband — now ex-husband — struggled to find work in his field that supported the family.
He landed a job with Abbott Laboratories in Germany as a data analyst and rose through the ranks. When their oldest child, Frank, turned 5, an opportunity opened up at Abbott's corporate headquarters in suburban Chicago.
"He was transferred back and forth between the offices in North Chicago a lot anyway," Garrison said. "When the (permanent) position opened up he asked if the kids and I would go with him. Following my curiosity and my lifestyle, I thought, why not?"
It was March 1986 when Garrison first set foot in the U.S. She still remembers the buzz around the city was the Chicago Bears winning Super Bowl XX less than two months earlier.
Although licensed to practice medicine back home, Garrison did not receive reciprocity in the U.S. Rather than pursue medicine, she spent the first two years helping her young children learn English, transfer into the Illinois school system, and adapt to American life and culture.
When it came time to return to work, Garrison stuck with what she knew — health care.
She landed a position with the Lake County Health Department as a substance abuse counselor working with pregnant women. She was later promoted to medical program director for the third largest county in the state.
Garrison was in the midst of a 22-year career with the Lake County Health Department, spending all of that time living in one house. She had grown accustomed to the familiarity of life and work in Chicago when she came to the Yampa Valley to visit a former assistant who had retired in Steamboat Springs.
"I fell in love with Colorado," she said. "We went hiking and, on later visits, skiing. There were so many opportunities to get close to nature."
During one of the visits, Garrison was introduced to Sue Birch, who was then serving as VNA chief executive officer. Birch is now executive director of the state's Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.
The two met for lunch at Freshies in Steamboat Springs where Birch talked about the lack of primary care for uninsured and low-income families and outlined her vision for the VNA in the Yampa Valley.
"It was clear when we stumbled upon Gisela that she was a passionate, dedicated and hard-working individual," Birch said. "She had already been living and working in an environment that had melded public health and primary care services together. We just knew at that point that she would fit our needs perfectly at the Craig Community Health Center."
Birch asked Garrison to join the team.
Being of Hungarian descent herself, Birch later sealed Garrison's recruitment by appealing to her love of German cuisine.
"I wanted to make sure the board and the doctors approved so I had her to my house for dinner," Birch said. "I like to joke that the two of us came together over spaetzle.
"We were ecstatic when we knew she was in her car with her belongings and heading to Craig."
Garrison moved to Craig in March 2008 and immersed herself in the health center position.
She is excited about expanding the VNA's philosophy of increasing access to care and is currently in the process of developing a retinal-screening program for people with diabetes.
"We are a program of the VNA and thus we are totally in support of the mission of the VNA to improve wellness and health in the community," Garrison said. "I love my work and I really enjoy life in Craig."