A legacy of caring

September 22, 2019

Donna Torrisi’s journey to change the face of health care in Philadelphia began with a community meeting in 1992. Torrisi was working at an HMO in Philadelphia when in 1991 she helped write a grant proposal for RHD to open a health center for residents of public housing. It was RHD’s first foray into primary care, seeing a desperate need in the community for better health care. In putting together the proposal, RHD sought out Torrisi’s expertise in the field for guidance — and then asked her to run this new model of care.

“I remember thinking: I would love to see a nurse-practitioner practice,’’ Torrisi says. “I had the good fortune to be asked to create a model of care to serve residents of public housing. I saw the chance to fulfill a dream to create a model of care that provided a compassionate environment for staff and patients.”

In a meeting with the Abbottsford Homes Tenant Management Corporation, helmed by community leader Dorothy Harrell, Torrisi laid out her vision. She wondered how it would be accepted, whether the community would insist on the traditional model of doctor-dominated care and resist bringing Torrisi’s dream to life in their community.

“To my delight, Dorothy said: In my experience, it’s nurses who do the caring. And this community needs caring,” Torrisi said.

With that, the Family Practice and Counseling Network got its start. And people in the underserved community of Abbottsford Falls — and, eventually, people in underserved communities across Philadelphia — got the care they needed.

This year Torrisi retires as Executive Director of FPCN, having led the health care network through a remarkable history — changing the laws in Pennsylvania to get nurses recognized as primary care practitioners, building FPCN into the largest nurse-managed health care network in the country, growing to five sites in the Philadelphia area and serving more than 22,000 people each year with the highest-quality integrated health care.

“Donna defied gravity at FPCN,” said Emily Nichols, who will succeed Torrisi as FPCN Executive Director.

'In great hands'

Emily Nichols has been an integral part of RHD’s Family Practice & Counseling Network since she became the Center Director of The Health Annex, FPCN’s health center in Southwest Philadelphia, and now takes over as Executive Director of FPCN.

At a retirement ceremony in June, lawmakers, funders, patients, friends and colleagues celebrated Torrisi’s amazing legacy.

See photos from Donna Torrisi’s retirement ceremony

“A lot of people owe her a debt of thanks,” said Pennsylvania state Sen. Art Haywood.

“Donna Torrisi has been on the front lines of health care in Philadelphia her whole career,” said Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams. “What Donna has done in FPCN has saved a lot of lives. She’s an extraordinary woman who has dedicated her life to her community. She cares in a way that is so rare, and so special. There are generations of people who will never forget what Donna has done here.”

“Where there were challenges and obstacles, Donna only saw possibility,” said RHD CEO Marco Giordano. “In her 27 years with RHD, Donna demonstrated tremendous leadership, innovation, and vision while overseeing the delivery of critical services to thousands of patients in underserved communities. Donna leaves a lasting legacy of unparalleled service to the health care community, and we are so proud that she was part of RHD.”

“She doesn’t go through life thinking she’s going to change the world; she just has these awesome ideas and she makes them happen,” Nichols said.

In addition to her trailblazing work at FPCN, Torrisi has often been recognized nationally for her iconic career in health care. This year Torrisi was honored by the Philadelphia Inquirer in its inaugural Influencers of Health Care awards.

Still Torrisi’s legacy is likely the same charge she had at that first community meeting — a legacy of caring. Torrisi created a special atmosphere at FPCN, where everyone felt ownership of the health center and invested in excellent service delivery. She began staff meetings by asking: “What do you feel most proud of today?” inviting FPCN staff to embrace how critical their mission was, and how much of an impact they were making in their community.

“When I was looking for a place to work, I wanted to be part of a team, part of a community,” said Tarik Khan, FPCN Family Nurse Practitioner. “I found that at FPCN. It’s a family atmosphere.”

“Donna Torrisi is the difference in my life,” said Nunzio, an FPCN patient. “This whole place is a reflection of her. When I walk in the door, it’s like you’re treated special. It feels like home.”

“This place saved my life,” said Eugenia, an FPCN patient.

“When I came here, I was a wreck,” said Calvin. “They helped me with everything I needed. They never refused me. Family Practice is here for you.”

“When I came to FPCN, that’s when my healing began,” said Dee Dee. “FPCN gave me my health and gave me peace of mind.”

“Creating and maintaining a trusting and compassionate relationship between patient and provider is what we at FPCN have done exceptionally well — caring for the whole person — body, mind and spirit,” Torrisi said. “I’m proud of that.”