Vivian Lee

Vivian Lee

Summa­rizing the experi­ence and contri­bu­tions of Vivian Lee in 1,000 words or less is, quite liter­ally, impos­sible. Throughout her career, Vivian has been a trail­blazer in the nursing profes­sion, for the under­served, and for African American nurses.

She was the first African American student admitted to the four-year BSN program at the Univer­sity of Washington, the first to receive the Washington State School Nurse of the Year award, the first African American RN hired at the Seattle VA hospital and the first hired by the U.S. Public Health Service. 

As impor­tant as these firsts” is what she was able to accom­plish in these roles. Vivian’s influ­ence and impact span her career as a staff nurse, as a school nurse, and a as leader in the U.S. Public Health Service, where she spent most of her career. Her contri­bu­tions include pioneering activ­i­ties in nurse practi­tioner training and expanding quality public health services to low income commu­ni­ties of color. Her lifetime activ­i­ties have reinforced the positive leader­ship role of profes­sional nurses in public health in Washington state and nationally. 

Vivian was accepted in the UW’s new four-year Bachelor of Nursing degree program in 1954. She started working even before she gradu­ated, first at Virginia Mason Hospital and then at the Seattle VA Hospital in 1958. 

After the VA, Vivian worked in school nursing in both Renton and Seattle Public Schools, where she devel­oped and conducted pioneering sex educa­tion programs. When the National Educa­tion Associ­a­tion estab­lished the first Board of School Nursing, she was elected as the Washington state repre­sen­ta­tive, based on her standard-setting work. In that role, she was a member of the committee that wrote the first U.S. School Nurse Practi­tioner curriculum, at a time when the role of nurse practi­tioners was neither under­stood nor supported widely. Vivian was the first school nurse to receive the Washington School Nurse of the Year award, in 1972. 

Vivian’s greatest impact was during her more than 20 years in the U.S Public Health Service, Region X. She founded the first Federal Regional Office on Women’s Health, funded 144 clinics, and imple­mented numerous research projects related to women’s repro­duc­tive health. It is fair to say that public health and family planning services in Washington state and the entire Pacific North­west would not be what they are today without the influ­ence, commit­ment and passion of Vivian. 

Vivian started as a Program Manage­ment Officer, and then went on to serve as Region X’s Public Health Advisor in Family Planning and Maternal and Child Health Programs, Regional Manager for the Title X Family Planning Program, and Founding Director of the first U.S. Regional Office on Women’s Health. 

While at the U.S. Public Health Service, Vivian person­ally selected grantees and provided funding to expand clinics and public health services to sparsely populated counties of the four-state region. Or, in some cases, in counties where physi­cians refused to serve welfare patients. 

She also was a staunch supporter of expanding public health nursing services to low income and minority clients through family planning clinics. She recog­nized that the overwhelming majority of patients were low income and had no other source of medical services. Many were from under­served commu­ni­ties of color, and women’s health clinics were their only source for primary care and quality referral for medical findings such as sexually trans­mitted diseases, cervical cancer, breast cancer, diabetes and hypertension. 

Vivian went on to help fund modifi­ca­tions to clinic facil­i­ties and services to make them more acces­sible for physi­cally challenged women. The check­list created through this project was distrib­uted nation­ally by the U.S. Dept. of Human Services to Title X clinics in public health depart­ments and private non-profit clinics nationwide. 

In 1970, Vivian partic­i­pated in securing funding and helped develop the curriculum for the first OB/​Gyn Nurse Practi­tioner training program for nurses in public health and private non-profit agencies. She took the then unheard-of step of requiring that nurses who partic­i­pated in the program continue to receive their salaries during their training and that they receive a pay increase when they returned as fully trained nurse practitioners. 

One of the most influ­en­tial projects Vivian funded and managed was the Chlamydia Research and Services project, in collab­o­ra­tion with the Centers for Disease Control. Researchers looked at Family Planning Clinic clients who were making multiple visits, and they were able to create Chlamydia proto­cols that success­fully treated both clients and their partners. The project, with additional data from the Univer­sity of Washington, success­fully demon­strated to Congress that funding for Chlamydia diagnosis and treat­ment is effec­tive and essen­tial to public health. 

Vivian’s lifetime efforts have received numerous national, regional and local recog­ni­tions and awards. She was named distin­guished alumni from the UW School of Nursing in 1993 for lifetime nursing accom­plish­ments. In 1994, Vivian won the National Exemplary Service award from the first African American female Surgeon General of the U.S., Dr. Joycelyn Elders, In recog­ni­tion of 24 years of public service and undaunted devotion to women’s health.” She received the Irving Kushner Award of the National Family Planning and Repro­duc­tive Health associ­a­tion in 1995. And the list goes on. 

In her so-called retirement, Vivian continues to be active in many social justice organizations and in organizations that address issues of disparity. She currently serves as the Outreach Vice President for the Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action (PSARA), an organization active in fighting for older Americans, their children and their families. #

In response to the announce­ment that she was being inducted into WSNA’s Hall of Fame, Vivian said, I have only done what needed to be done to improve the health and well-being of our public and to be an active advocate for those who needed that advocacy.” We have to disagree on one point: There is no only” about all that Vivian has done for public health, the under­served and the nursing profession.