Janet Snipes didn’t know it at the time, but a simple phone call from her mother on a summer’s day in 1976 sealed her professional fate.

The then-recent Lake County High School graduate from Leadville, CO, had moved to Denver where her mother worked as a registered nurse at Holly Heights Nursing Center. One day someone was needed to answer the phone, and Snipes answered the call.

“Things happen for a reason. There’s always a reason,” she says. “I tell my children that all the time.”

Snipes’ plan to study accounting quickly switched to a focus on nursing home administration.

Fast forward 44 years and she is leading Holly Heights, and representing it and the industry, including as a member of the White House Coronavirus Commission for Safety and Quality in Nursing Homes last summer.

In the early days of the pandemic, she says it felt like Holly Heights was an island with little-to-no help from the agencies she contacted. Hers, though, became a fully functioning, self-sustainable island due to quick work by staff. 

“They did it in a heartbeat,” she says. One employee, while off duty, went room to room playing the violin. Others played basketball with residents in their rooms. A mobile “corner store” delivered treats.

Snipes got creative, sourcing N95 masks from a local construction company and using disposable rain ponchos with hoods for isolation gowns. She screened employees for the virus during nightly shift changes, studied the latest health guidance and returned again at 5:30 a.m. (after waking at 3:30 a.m. to exercise). She then screened employees in the morning and implement ed ever-changing health advice in operations.

Craving sunshine became a diversion. A ski racer in high school, slopes are still her escape.

She and her husband Ron, her “rock,” often visit Ski Cooper outside Leadville and snowshoe along the Continental Divide trail near Camp Hale. When she visits her son, Ryan, and his wife in Eagle,CO, they all ski Beaver Creek. Snipes’ daughter, Christie, her husband, and their 4-year-old son, Hunter, live just 20 minutes away, making for frequent happy visits.

Snipes says she has always made efforts to improve care locally, but it was encouragement from Mary Ousley, a force in national long-term care policy efforts, that pushed Snipes to work on systemic changes that might help residents across the state and country.

Ousley says Snipes’ appointment to the White House commission during the pandemic “speaks volumes” about her ability to recommend practical solutions to be implemented by Congress and local administrators. “That takes a unique person,” Ousley says.

Snipes says the White House commission’s work has helped fortify a quicker rollout of rapid tests as well as better access to personal protective equipment, among other positive effects. 

It was early on in the pandemic when Ousley and Snipes were on a conference call with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services that the latter’s spirit really showed.

As Snipes told them what was happening at Holly Heights, Ousley said she could feel the passion in her voice. “As she explained this very real agony, I sat at my desk as I listened to her and cried.” 

Two calls, bookends as it were, of a lifetime of connections to long-term care.