Husband-Wife Team Provides Specialty Care, Focuses on Access for All
Above: Nurse practitioners Iris Zink and Chris Title have provided patient-centered care in East Lansing’s first early arthritis intervention clinic since 2016.
Iris Zink came to nursing via fashion design, waiting tables and a dream about her deceased mother. And while she admits all those things seem unrelated, all merged to send a strong signal that she was destined for a career in health care.
Today, Zink owns and operates Lansing Rheumatology with her husband and business partner Chris Title. Both re-careered from pink- or blue-collar jobs to become successful nurse practitioners. Both, too, make their first priority helping others lead pain-free, fulfilling lives by providing holistic, evidenced-based care.
“I always knew I wanted to help people,” said Zink. “People kept telling me I should be a nurse. When my dead mother told me the same thing in a dream, I knew it was time to do it.”
Listening to dreams
Zink moved to East Lansing in 1988 to attend MSU, work and raise a family. She enrolled in nursing school and secured her credentials through Lansing Community College, Grand Valley State University and leading certification programs. Afterward, she worked 16 years in a physician-owned rheumatology clinic in Lansing before she was approached about taking over another practice in town.
“I had another strange dream then,” said Zink. “It was my mother again, telling me it was my purpose now to open a rheumatology clinic that would take people on Medicaid, too.”
Although Zink lightheartedly says her dreams are the catalyst, her plans are solidly rooted in the realities of the people she serves. As a nurse practitioner in a specialty field of medicine, Zink became acutely aware of the number of patients with limited or no access to health insurance. She became aware, too, of the limited number of specialty clinics in Greater Lansing that took Medicaid for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and other rheumatic diseases that affect joint tendons, ligaments, bones and muscles.
Zink leveraged that knowledge as well the network she had built through the Rheumatology Nurse Society. In 2016, she opened Lansing Rheumatology on the northeastern tier of East Lansing at 6200 Pine Hollow Drive. In just three years, the clinic has grown to serve more than 2,000 patients with rheumatic diseases, with about 50 percent of her caseload being Medicaid.
“I believe that everyone deserves care whether they are underinsured or uninsured,” she said. “I remember not having insurance for a while and having to go to free clinics for my care. Some of my inspiration to serve the underserved comes from that experience.”
Devoted to care
Title, like Zink, possesses a passion for serving others. In the early 1980s, Title served as a union steward for the UAW in Michigan and eastern U.S. before switching gears and going into the health field. Starting out in respiratory care, he went into nursing to expand his abilities and the number of people he could help.
“We’re always asking our kids how they will contribute to the world,” he said. “This is my way.”
Zink and Title met about five years ago through a specialty clinic at Michigan State University. The two discovered they shared a similar philosophy on the approach to treating patients with rheumatic diseases. Zink also learned that Title had managed 120 nurses at the University of Michigan Hospital and possessed the business savvy it would take to launch and operate a practice.
Lansing Rheumatology is East Lansing’s first early arthritis intervention clinic, and one of the few clinics in Michigan owned and operated by nurse practitioners in collaboration with a medical doctor. Most nurse-practitioner clinics, Zink said, are owned by a hospital or doctor.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about improving the quality of life of your patients,” Zink said. “We’re here to help minimize pain so patients can do the activities they want to do.”
Title and Zink work with a staff of seven to serve the needs of about 32 patients a day. The clinic receives anywhere from five to 10 referrals per day, many from community organizations or health clinics focused on the underserved. Patients range in age from 15 to 93, and are treated for conditions that include rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune diseases, and complex infections and syndromes.
While many of her patients are new, Zink has long-term relationships with a sizeable number of patients from her ongoing work in Greater Lansing. Newer treatments and medications, she said, have been helpful to some, while others take continual intervention to find the right combination of patient-centered care.
“A lot of my patients become like members of my family,” said Zink. “I’ve known some of them for going on 20 years. Several even came to our wedding. The relationship isn’t really explainable.”
One of those unexplainable relationships became extraordinary when Zink donated one of her kidneys in mid-2018 to help an extremely ill patient live a longer life.
“Here I am, a totally healthy person and I can help you. Why wouldn’t I?” she said. “There is absolutely nothing that compares to the feeling of saving someone’s life.”