‘In great hands’

Symbolically, Donna Torrisi passed the torch to Emily Nichols. Literally, Torrisi passed Nichols the white buffalo.

When Torrisi retired this year after 27 years as Executive Director of RHD’S Family Practice & Counseling Network, she pulled the statue of a white buffalo (“It symbolizes hope, and optimism, and a sense that good things are coming,” Torrisi said) off her desk and gave it to her successor. Nichols has been an integral part of the health 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, the largest nurse-led health care network in the country. And today the white buffalo sits on her desk, in a sunny office inside the Abbottsford Falls location of FPCN. Nichols had been Director of Operations for FPCN since 2013, working directly with Torrisi.

“We complimented each other,” Nichols said. “While our styles were different, we shared many of the same core values about the work, who we serve and the importance of recognizing systemic racism and how it has affected our patients’ lives.

“A couple of months before she retired, Donna said, ‘All right Emily, I built the first floor, it’s time for you to build the second floor.’ I’m looking at taking this awesome base and expanding it. Growing within — improving within. I’m excited about it.”

“She is a fabulous leader,” Torrisi said. “Emily Nichols cares deeply about people, and cares deeply about the health centers. She brings so many gifts — sincerity, integrity, commitment, a great sense of humor. FPCN’s future is in great hands.”

Nichols’ passion to work with underserved populations came from the values instilled in her by her parents. Nichols’ mother was a high school English teacher.

“Somehow the kids with the most challenges found their way to our home,” Nichols said. “My mother felt she could give them some mentoring and guidance. Through this, I felt a responsibility to give back to people who may not have been as fortunate as me. It created my foundation.”

Nichols received a BA in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. While in college she volunteered in East Baltimore helping women and babies with HIV. Nichols went on to receive an MPH in Behavioral Science from Emory University and in 2010, became the center director of the Health Annex, FPCN’s health center in Southwest Philadelphia. At the Health Annex, Nichols found her voice and absorbed the high standards that hallmark FPCN health centers.

“I developed good relationships with people there, but also figured who I am as a leader,” she said.

In 2013, Nichols became director of operations for FPCN — a role that allowed her to work directly with each of the five FPCN center directors to define policies that best served their respective communities. She also expanded FPCN’s use of technology to assist with practices and provide important data.

“I am a big data person — I’m asking what is the data saying? What is the story behind the data? It’s a big love and I want to keep moving it forward,” explained Nichols.

Under Nichols’ direction, FPCN will be growing in additional areas, including increasing community engagement for each health site. On the immediate horizon, Nichols will be overseeing the opening of The Family Health and Birth Center, the only birth center in Philadelphia where women are engaged in their experience of childbirth, with better outcomes and lower costs.

“I want FPCN to be known as an innovative and integrated model of care across all disciplines for the good of our patients,” said Nichols. “We need to meet them where they are, provide comprehensive trauma informed services for whatever they need. They deserve it and we need to provide that for them.”