Pam Parsons, ‘a relentless champion’ for community health, dies at 67

November 13, 2023

Author: Caitlin Hanbury

Parsons, a professor in the VCU School of Nursing, was a nationally recognized expert on models of care for chronically ill older adults and medically vulnerable populations and was the founder of the VCU Mobile Health and Wellness Program.

pam parsons
Pam Parsons, 67, was known for her dedication to community health and education. (VCU Development and Alumni Relations)

Pam Parsons, Ph.D., R.N., associate dean of practice and community engagement, clinical professor and Judith B. Collins and Joseph M. Teefey Distinguished Professor in the VCU School of Nursing, died last month at the age of 67.

While she is most known for founding the VCU Mobile Health and Wellness Program, Parsons’ legacy spans the VCU Health and Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical sciences campus.

Deploying her signature blend of cheerful persistence and administrative pluck, Parsons brought together a variety of complex collaborations and community partnerships into fruition that provided services to medically underserved populations in the Richmond region.

“Through education, service and leadership, Parsons inspired countless students and colleagues to pursue community health work,” said Jean Giddens, Ph.D., professor and dean of the School of Nursing. “She will be remembered for her tireless and unwavering commitment to the care of vulnerable communities, her incredible work ethic and her special talent of organizing every available resource to improve care for the community.”

Drawn to a career in community health

Just after her second shift as a new nurse in the intensive care unit, Parsons made a decision that launched her storied career. She quit.

As she later recalled, those few hours in emergency care made clear her purpose was to help people stay well enough to mitigate the need for emergent care. In the decades that followed, Parsons did just that.

During her early career as a nurse practitioner, Parsons designed care protocols and programs to support older adult care as well as led federal quality improvement projects and initiatives. In these roles, she confronted the realities and pitfalls of care coordination and delivery. She started to imagine what an improved care model could offer patients.

Starting in 1999, Parsons held a clinical appointment with VCU Health and a short time later began teaching in various roles across the VCU health sciences campus – including as an assistant professor for the Department of Internal Medicine in the VCU School of Medicine and an affiliate faculty member with the schools of nursing and pharmacy. During this time, Parsons diversified and expanded her network of colleagues while exploring funding opportunities to develop a nurse-led, interprofessional and collaborative practice to provide wellness and preventative care to those most in need.

Parson’s efforts and vision culminated in 2012. With pilot funding from VCU, she established the Richmond Health and Wellness Program, now known as the Mobile Health and Wellness program or MHWP, a weekly clinic held at Dominion Place, a community dwelling for low-income residents at the edge of the university’s Monroe Park campus.

Parsons and her collaborators saw early success with the program’s innovative model of care. Participants who wanted to remain independent in the community but previously lacked access to resources were connected to health assessment, chronic disease monitoring, wellness coaching and care coordination by teams of interprofessional faculty and students.

Just one year later, Parsons was awarded $1.5 million in funding from the Health Resources and Services Administration to expand the program. In 2014, she joined the faculty of the VCU School of Nursing and continued to build the program as the cornerstone of the school’s growing community engagement efforts.

A community engagement architect and visionary

Parsons had a clear-eyed ability to identify a community need and, in turn, leverage seemingly disparate resources and networks to address it. Her colleagues described her unique talent to creatively enlist multiple funding sources, in-kind services from local organizations and partnerships with local agencies to benefit a single project and maximize its impact. The relationships she built to accomplish that work ranged from connections with community leaders to national policy influencers.

“What stood out to me was that Pam was always eager to connect with new folks, to extend herself and learn more,” said Lynn Mertz, senior strategic policy advisor for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). “In 2022 AARP partnered with Meritus Health to launch the Leaders in Equity and Diversity Collaborative. We sought to engage organizations of all types from the mid-Atlantic region, and so I immediately called Pam to ask if she and Sheryl Garland [of VCU Health] would possibly be interested. Both signed up. Pam quietly continued to share the Richmond Health and Wellness Program experience, as well as use the opportunity to further improve care for those in the community – she wasn’t done learning or improving. Pam never let an opportunity pass.”

jodi winship, elvin price and pam parsons sitting together on their laptops
The Richmond Health and Wellness Program combined the expertise of various health care fields to build a coordinated care model for participants. The partnership includes faculty like Jodi Winship, Ph.D., assistant professor of occupational therapy in the VCU College of Health Professions; Elvin Price, Pharm.D., Ph.D., professor at the VCU School of Pharmacy; and Pam Parsons, Ph.D., associate dean of practice and community engagement at the VCU School of Nursing. They are sitting in the VCU Health Hub at 25th, a Richmond East End health education and wellness activity center. (Chris Ijams, MCV Foundation)

As the founding co-director of the Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation (iCubed) Health and Wellness in Aging Core at VCU, Parsons helped usher in a new team dynamic that convened transdisciplinary teams to solve challenging and persistent problems in urban communities. Drawing on her decades of experience, she established and grew the research core in partnership with co-director Elvin Price, Pharm.D., Ph.D., associate professor and director of the geriatric pharmacotherapy in the VCU School of Pharmacy.

“Pamela Parsons was determined to promote health equity for older adults who were determined to live independently in the community. Pam left a legacy of love among the patients that she served and her work family who were privileged to work with her. I am forever grateful that I was a colleague of Pamela Parsons, a relentless champion for improving the human experience,” Price said.

More recently, Parsons led the establishment of the School of Nursing faculty practice plan that allows the school to share contract agreements with MCV Physicians so nurse practitioner faculty can practice within their specialty at VCU Health up to two days per week. Started in 2021, the practice has quickly grown to 10 participating faculty.

“Because of Parson’s efforts, the School of Nursing faculty practice model has created new opportunities for the school, enriched the teaching and learning experience for our students through precepting, expanded our networks and partnerships with VCU Health, and is supporting professional development and opportunities for new scholarship for our faculty,” Giddens said.

‘Be a tiger’

Over the course of her career, Parsons was recognized for her innovative work with numerous awards and accolades and continued to receive large grants to support her work. She was honored by local and national organizations for her innovative and successful community engagement work including the Senior Connections Capital Area Agency on Aging, the National Academies of Practice Nursing Academy as a Distinguished Practitioner & Fellow, the Richmond Memorial Health Foundation as an Equity and Health Fellow and finally as an American Academy of Nursing Fellow in 2020.

But those closest to her know her biggest achievement is the enduring network of community partners who continue to collaborate and serve central Virginia’s medically vulnerable citizens. Last year, the Mobile Health and Wellness Program celebrated 10 years of operations and is set to expand again next year beyond its current nine community-based sites around Richmond into rural communities.

Pam built a legacy at VCU through her passion for serving others across the community. She also set a benchmark for teaching students about authentic community engagement. She embraced the principle of health equity and worked tirelessly to ensure everyone she touched had an opportunity to achieve optimal health.

Sheryl Garland
Chief of Health Impact, VCU Health System

Parsons’ success was the result of her investments in community engagement, her indefatigable advocacy and her genuine joy in mentoring the next generation of providers and educators.

“Parsons was an expert navigator in addressing barriers. She showed up everyday with tenacity and resolve. Her legacy serves as a model for all of us and the impact we can make when we invest our talents and passions in our work,” Giddens said.

Parsons embraced a piece of advice once given to her about facing obstacles: “Be a tiger.” When she shared that advice with someone, it was a signal of her encouragement as much as it was a personal reminder about the energy her work required.

Her success in inspiring others to adopt that same mentality, determination and commitment means her work will continue with lasting impact.