2021 Nurse of the Year

Janet Runbeck, RN, MN

Congratulations to Janet Runbeck, RN, MN, our Rainier Olympic Nurses Association’s 2021 Nurse of the Year.

Jan’s nursing career has focused on population health, public health and education with a strong emphasis on volunteer work, advocacy and collaboration with community partners.

Jan’s nursing career began in 1976 when she graduated from Tacoma General Hospital School of Nursing with her RN diploma. As a young woman in her early twenties, Jan was initially drawn to a career in nursing for adventure. “I became a nurse for the adventure. I wanted to know that I could get off of any plane or bus or train anywhere in the world and get a job within 24 hours. The American nursing license was a ticket to travel and a ticket to freedom.”

Jan didn’t wait to begin her adventures. “The week that I graduated, there was a 3×5 card posted to the bulletin board that said, ‘Wanted Dude Ranch Nurse’ in Teannaway Valley in Cle Elum. My first job was as a dude ranch kids kids camp nurse”. She spent three months caring for campers and riding horses. “Camp nursing is really just the funnest thing.”

While at the Dude Ranch, Jan began working one night shift a week in a rural 24/7 ER in an old Coal Miner Hospital operated by the Kittitas County Hospital District #2. During the day, there was a doctor, but at night it was staffed by one registered nurse. “I’d be by myself for 16 hours until the doctor showed up the next morning.” There was a lot of first aid and urgent care but also motor vehicle and dirt bike accidents, cancer patients with uncontrolled pain and even a birthing room. If patient acuity went beyond their scope, they would “stabilize and put them in the ambulance from our little ER to Ellensburg.”

From early in her career, Jan focused on gaining as much continuing education as possible. She talked the hospital district into sending her to every education offering in the state for rural emergency nurses. She was particularly focused on building her assessment skills. When an opportunity arose for a nurse to attend a one year course at Good Samaritan Hospital and Medical Center, Portland OR,  to earn a Emergency/Primary Care Nurse Practitioner certificate from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, they approached Jan. This was the beginning of Nurse Practitioner education before there were ARNP programs. She continued on at the rural ER working under the direction of a physician while continuing to say yes to adventures.

Over the next decade, Jan would earn a BA in Geography with a minor in Business and a Demography certificate from the International Institute For Population Studies. “I spent a year in India,” after receiving an International Rotary Technical Vocational Award. “In those days, a degree in geography was the closest you could get to population studies.” She also volunteered in Thailand for Southeast Asian refugees. And in 1980, the US Public Health Dept called her to help provide health screening of Cuban refugees and, later, to assist public health nurses in Pennsylvania.

Jan’s path took a turn in 1986 when she moved back to Tacoma and purchased the family business, Tacoma Monumental Works, Inc. For the next 18 years, she focused on growing the business with her husband, Mike Mowat. She would go on to use the skills she honed as a business owner as she dove back into her nursing career. 

In May 2004 after selling the business, she headed down to the University of Washington – Tacoma, School of Nursing to explore if it would be possible to earn her Masters in Nursing. Without a BSN degree, it was not a straight path. UWT was very supportive and allowed her to write a challenge to pursue her Masters. But first, she needed to get her nursing license back. After taking a refresher course with the Intercollege Center for Nursing in Spokane, she regained her license. “The State of Washington gave me my same license number back.”

Her next chapter begins shortly after graduating with her Masters in Nursing. Jan and her husband have always been very active volunteers in the community. While painting a food bank, she was approached by the food bank manager with an idea to start a free clinic focused on primary care support. Inspired by a project in Milwaukee, WI, that placed a clinic in a food bank to improve access to primary care and decrease the rate of no shows, they began exploring the idea of replicating it in Tacoma.

Jan knew, “You don’t do anything in this world without making sure you’ve got the right team around you.” The first step was to find partners and build alliances. She approached the Pierce County Medical Reserve Corps, reached out to the local healthcare organizations, talked with other local free clinics, and began looking for funding sources.

“You don’t do anything in this world without making sure you’ve got the right team around you.”

She built a dream team partnership and in 2009 opened the RotaCare Free Clinic of Tacoma, focused on primary care and management of chronic diseases. “The clinic ran on less than $5,000 a year. St. Joseph Medical Center did all the lab work, Tacoma General gave insulin, and Community Healthcare Clinic took our “hot” patients. PCMRC provided most of the licensed staff. PLU provided space for the clinic. Washington State Free Clinic Association gave us network support,  and Rotacare Free Clinics, a program of Rotary Club 8, provided infrastructure and funding.” The Rotacare Clinic was open until 2014 when Obamacare was fully implemented.

During this time, Jan wasn’t just running the RotaCare free clinic. She was also the event co-chair for Project Homeless Connect events, and in April 2011, she led the charge to coordinate the Care Clinic, a massive one day clinic at the Tacoma Dome. In one day, 1,400 volunteers facilitated the care of 1,500 patients who’d scheduled appointments. The Care Clinic truly highlights Jan’s passion for caring for vulnerable populations and her vast management and leadership skills.

In addition to her work with homeless populations, Jan’s focused her passion, strong advocacy and collaboration skills to help with the issue of sex trafficking. As a gifted public speaker, she has raised awareness of the issue. She has also, once again, worked to form collaborations to truly bring about change in awareness and policy. She helped form two coalitions: Pierce County Coalition Against Trafficking and the Pierce County Anti-trafficking Network.

Jan is always looking for ways to bring community partners together, to strengthen the entire system, and to impact policies so real change can be made. “It’s policy that dictates our lifestyle. If we don’t have policy in place then we’re destined to repeat the status quo.” “If you have compassion and back it with science and data, it seems pretty clear to me what the path is.” 

Jan also believes strongly in educating the next generation of nurses – teaching at both Pacific Lutheran School of Nursing and University of Washington, Tacoma School of Nursing over the last 10 years. In 2020, she officially retired but her volunteer work in our community has not slowed a bit. Jan is a very active member of Pierce County Medical Reserve Corps, serving as their Finance Administrator since 2009, deploying in numerous activations from government declared homeless emergencies to measles outbreaks in neighboring counties to COVID response while also coordinating countless school vaccination clinics over the years. She also holds or has held office on nonprofit boards including: Exchange Club of Tacoma, Soroptimist International of Tacoma, South Sound Outreach, Pierce County Coalition Against Trafficking, Pierce County Project Access, Tacoma General Hospital SON Alumnae Association and Community Health Worker Collaborative of Pierce County.

Jan’s passion and dedication to improving the health of our community by building coalitions; supporting our most vulnerable community members; managing projects and volunteers, while helping to educate future nurses is an inspiration. Jan says, “When you need help, call a nurse.” She’s often the one to pick up the call.

“When you need help, call a nurse.”

When COVID hit in 2020, Jan was there with all her knowledge, connections and passion. On March 16, 2020, Jan was at the Health Department as an PCMRC volunteer helping staff a phone line set up to answer questions from physicians. “There is an outbreak at the Nativity House which is the 2nd largest homeless center in Pierce County.” “They’ve done the right thing. They’ve taken the 10 men around the person and staff and put them in the basement of the next building next door and called the health department for help.”

Jan knew all the players and they knew her. She could call and say “This is Jan Runbeck and COVID’s happening and I know you do ABC really well, can you perform? And people get it. Within 48 hours, we were able to set up a quarantine and isolation unit at the Salvation Army Church. And we kept them there and added more men until money came forward to open  the hotel on South Hosmer that takes people who’ve been exposed to COVID.” Opened in just 48 hours, this temporary quarantine site was open for 28 days. 

Outside of nursing, Jan loves entertaining large groups of friends in her home – cooking meals and sharing community. “A lot of cooking with friends who like to cook.” She plays piano and is an avid hiker. Her and her husband hike 5 days a week often at Point Defiance.