After years in health care leadership, new Ouray School nurse Anthony Disser is back to a hands-on role with a chance 'to do meaningful and purposeful work where my family is'

  • New Ouray School nurse Anthony Disser has spent more than 40 years work ing in health care, including several management positions. He was already making plans to move here before taking the part-time job. Now he's leading the district's efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Liz Teitz - Ouray County Plaindealer
    New Ouray School nurse Anthony Disser has spent more than 40 years work ing in health care, including several management positions. He was already making plans to move here before taking the part-time job. Now he's leading the district's efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Liz Teitz - Ouray County Plaindealer

A few months before the coronavirus pandemic halted international travel, Anthony Disser was flying frequently to China and Saudi Arabia, consulting for hospitals on certification and accreditation.

But when the first week of the new school year rolled around, he was on hand at Ouray School, manning one of the doors as elementary students entered the building.

Disser, 67, who retired from his position at a national healthcare system in 2017, is the new school nurse for Ouray School District, where he’ll work 12 hours a week and lead the district’s efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

That means carrying around an omnipresent forehead thermometer, conducting regular COVID-19 testing for school employees every two weeks and counseling parents on when to keep children home from school, along with the more typical duties of a school nurse.

The new role is a return to Disser’s roots, when he worked as a nurse before moving into management and consulting roles, with titles including senior vice president and chief innovation officer. After more than 40 years in health care, he applied for the job in part to return to hands-on nursing, which brought him into the profession initially. It also allows him to be closer to his family. His son, Nate, is vice president of the school board as well as the co-owner of San Juan Mountain Guides, and Anthony has owned a home next door to him since 2015. And he has two grandchildren who attend the school.

Since then, he’s spent a few months in Ouray each year, and was already making plans to move here permanently.

“The job didn’t bring me here, I had intended to come out here full-time,” he said. “It’s a chance to live in this beautiful place and to do meaningful and purposeful work where my family is.”

“The best part of bringing someone with that depth of knowledge is I have someone to run scenarios by,” Superintendent Tod Lokey said. “Having the expertise in the building has been a nice relief.” Disser has met with teachers to talk about decision-making and handling students with symptoms, he said. “It’s just supportive to have someone to help people work through their concerns and anxieties and what-ifs.”    

An avid long-distance biker, Disser said he’s learning to ride in the mountains and enjoying commuting to school by bike as long as the weather allows. He doesn’t miss the frequent air travel of his prior jobs, he said. “It’s just a bus with wings,” he joked.

This “retirement” comes after a long career in health care, which started almost by accident.

After studying philosophy in college, he was introduced to the dean of the nursing school at Vanderbilt University in his hometown of Nashville. “He said you can’t believe the kinds of things you’ll be able to do in nursing,” Disser said. “It wasn’t like I knew in the seventh grade I was going to be a nurse, it was like a practical decision of wow, it looks like a lot of options, a lot of interesting things to do, and maybe I could eat, you know.”

Being in a female-dominated field didn’t faze him, though he said his sons teased him about it when they were young, before one went into the profession himself. “That’s just part of the stigma of what nursing is, as a female profession, but maybe the message there is that maybe some males should take on some female characteristics of learning how to collaborate and compromise a little bit more instead of subdue you.”

He went on to study geriatric nursing and administration in graduate school, and started in management at a three-hospital system in Illinois, before moving up to gradually larger companies in New York, North Carolina and Virginia. For 15 years, he was head of clinical operations at Kindred Healthcare, a Kentucky-based company with hospitals and long-term care facilities in 47 states and more than 30,000 employees.

Even in executive roles, he was always more comfortable in scrubs, he said. At school, he wears a scrub top with his jeans and mask.

After retiring in 2017, he moved into consulting roles; with his new, part-time position in Ouray, he’ll continue doing some of that work remotely, he said.

Because he won’t be on-campus all the time — though he was quick to note he’s always on call — he’s also going to be working with others at the school to handle things as necessary.

“There’s a couple people here that are nurse-aide trained, and there’s a certification course in medication administration that a couple people can go through that I can supervise,” he said. “I’m going to have to do it through other people and be here as quick as I could.”

While the threat of coronavirus has been on everyone’s minds, Disser is also concerned with what he considers the biggest danger: the playground. School nursing includes dealing with bumps and bruises from the jungle gym, doling out medications and annual hearing and vision assessments.

He’s hopeful that one of the takeaways of the pandemic will be a renewed emphasis on schools as more than just buildings.

“Maybe what might happen is that schools will awaken to the fact that schools aren’t just schools, they’re places of great health assessment and healthiness and maybe school nurses will come back, because over the years they’ve been chopped,” he said.

Ouray’s nursing position was previously budgeted for only four hours each week and the district is using coronavirus relief funds to triple that amount of time for the year.

Disser is replacing former Ouray School nurse Ashley Moore. She resigned in June to stay home with her 1-year-old daughter, she said.

Ridgway School District also increased its budget for nursing, from 16 hours each week to a full-time position for the school year.

The district’s new school nurse, Elizabeth Cassidy, previously worked as a registered nurse at Montrose Memorial Hospital, according to a district hiring document. Her husband, Mike Cassidy, teaches fourth grade at Ridgway Elementary. She did not respond to interview requests from the Plaindealer.

Former Ridgway school nurse Alicia Skoko resigned in July to take a job out of state and focus on clinical nursing, she said in her resignation letter.