For 12 years, Jan Polizzi was a nurse in pediatric intensive care units. That was as long as she could take it.
''I still recall the first child that I ever lost,'' she said in a 1988 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story. ''I dressed and bathed him and got him his favorite toys. I learned to love that kid and his family.''
Ms. Polizzi, who left intensive pediatric nursing to spend 30 years in community health service, died Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. She had lived in Sappington for the past 25 years. Her husband, Pete Polizzi, said that she was diagnosed with breast cancer 15 years ago. She was 65.
She shifted her specialty to public health nursing she said because she had seen enough hopelessly ill children die.
“Her whole life was caring for children,” her husband said.
A Nurse in the State House
In 1992, Ms. Polizzi was the first nurse elected to the Missouri House of Representatives. Even while serving in the House, she would come home on the weekends to care for a patient with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Her win by a Democrat in South County’s 97th District, a Republican stronghold, was seen as shocking. Her husband was surprised that she even ran. He said an unusual event had riled her: Playboy magazine was planning a pictorial on nurses.
“That got her going,” he laughed, and she launched a nationwide campaign against Playboy that fueled her political ambitions.
Next time around, Republicans mounted a fierce campaign, ensuring that she served only one term. Two years were enough, however, for Ms. Polizzi to have an impact.
Ms. Polizzi was elected just in time to pull 12-hour shifts as a disaster nurse during the Great Flood of ’93. That year, her first in office, she received a Certificate of Recognition for Health through legislation.
She co-sponsored and passed the Collaborative Practice for Nursing, which formally defined the role of registered nurses in administering and dispensing drugs; she won revised standards for workers’ compensation, furthered education reforms and served as vice chair of the Public Health and Safety Committee.
She helped defeat an amendment to a Missouri welfare reform bill that would have reduced the benefits for children born to mothers receiving public assistance.
In a 1994 Post-Dispatch letter to the editor, she said: “It is important to note that most of the legislators supporting the proposal to cut benefits to the product of conception also voted against increasing funds for pregnancy prevention programs the following day.”
Although she had become a called-upon ally of then Gov. Mel Carnahan, her later efforts to return to Jefferson City failed. But she never slowed her efforts to make statewide health care changes.
Nursing the Community
After graduating from Hazelwood High School in 1967, Ms. Polizzi earned an associate’s degree from Maryville University and a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Saint Louis University. She later earned her master’s degree from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
Her first job as a registered nurse was in the intensive pediatric unit at what is now SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. She later worked briefly at SSM St. Mary’s Health Center. For a time, she was one of only three certified neonatal nurses in the state.
After a decade of hospital work, she moved out into the community – and there she stayed. She became a nurse at the Grace Hill neighborhood clinic north of downtown St. Louis and subsequently at Nurses for Newborns, where she worked with young mothers, many of whom had children with special needs.
“Jan was very joyful with her patients, and she gave them hope,” said Sharon Rohrbach, retired CEO of Nurses for Newborns. “She rejoiced with her patients over the slightest accomplishment and each and every milestone that the babies reached (and would) tell the mothers what great mothers they were.”
Much of Ms. Polizzi’s time was spent in some of St. Louis’ poorest neighborhoods. Some were dangerous.
Once, she was beaten up. Her husband asked her to quit the work she loved. He said she responded, “Who else is going to help these people?”
Another time she was approached by a man intent upon taking her medical bag. Two other men saw the incident and stepped in, one informing the would-be robber that “nobody bothers the nurse.” She did not know either of her rescuers, but one reminded her that she had taken care of him when he was little; the other man said that she had cared for his mother.
“Miss Jan, you go anywhere you want, because we are watching,” her husband said she recalled one of the men telling her. And so she did, for three decades, driving a conspicuous yellow Volkswagen or red Jeep.
Between home visits, she’d stop in at Crown Candy Kitchen or, in the summertime, she’d complete her reports in the cool solitude of a Calvary Cemetery mausoleum.
''Unwanted pregnancies, AIDS - they're preventable. Asthma, diabetes are treatable. Then why are so many people in the black community dying?'' It was a question she asked in a 1991 Post-Dispatch story titled Blacks Facing Tougher Times.
Her life focused on health disparities, where some people “must decide whether to buy the medicine or pay the rent.”
She called for universal health care when most still would not whisper the phrase.
Through her work and as president of the Missouri Nurse’s Association, she supported successful efforts to gain Medicare funding for mammograms and fought for greater at-home Medicaid coverage for elderly and disabled people.
She proclaimed the right of nurses to unionize to improve working conditions, and she worked strenuously to bring people into the profession – and keep them there. Opportunities to proselytize abounded during her tenure as an adjunct professor at Maryville University. She encouraged new nurses to work in underserved areas as she had.
Ms. Polizzi was not predictable. In 1992, she supported broadening the concealed carry law. The bill was introduced by a fellow Democrat; it was opposed by police at the time and most of a majority of legislators.
Do the Right Thing
Jan Crandall Polizzi was born in St. Louis on June 26, 1949, the daughter of Charles Crandall, a retired Sverdrup engineer who built breweries, and Anne Crandall, a retired McDonnell Douglas secretary. They now live in Sarasota, Fla.
She married Pete Polizzi, a former Laclede Gas accountant, in 1974, two years after an inauspicious meeting. He’d just returned from Vietnam and was driving a brand new Pontiac Lemans convertible.
“This crazy person came tearing around the parking lot spitting up rocks on my new car,” Pete Polizzi said. “A woman gets out of the car crying; what could I do but take her out for a drink?” Two weeks later, they were engaged.
Ms. Polizzi was inducted into the National Honor Society of Nursing Sigma Theta in 1980. In 2003, she was named member of the year by the Missouri Nurse's Association and inducted into its Hall of fame in 2014. She’d recently become treasurer of the Daughters of the American Revolution Webster Groves Chapter and was on the board of the Prince of Peace United Church of Christ, where she also taught Sunday school.
She was a member of the St. Louis Gateway Singers and had served on the Mehlville School District board. She did not seek office again because she believed a gay faculty member had been improperly treated.
“With Jan, it was always about the right thing to do,” her husband said.
In addition to her husband and parents, Ms. Polizzi’s survivors include a son, Joseph J. (Stephanie Brasier) Polizzi, of South County.
Memorial services were held Wednesday, with interment at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.