UNLV School of Nursing alumna Tabitha Lustig thought she'd be celebrating a routine, but big milestone in 2021: The one-year anniversary of opening her own clinic. What she didn't know when she started her clinic was that she would be opening a facility right before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lustig officially opened her practice in Richland, Washington (about 200 miles southeast of Seattle), on Jan. 13, 2020, eight days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed a Washington man had the first case of COVID-19 in the United States.
Ordinary new business hiccups were now intensified, forcing her to quickly adapt. But going off-script was normal for Lustig, who has built her professional career off unexpected moments.
An unconventional path
Launching a clinic wasn’t originally part of Lustig’s life plan. Neither was nursing, even though her mother is a registered nurse first assistant.
“I wanted nothing to do with nursing because of my mom,” she said. “She would respond to traumas all the time. I can't tell you how many birthdays my mother missed because she was called into work. I figured if that's what nursing was like, I did not want to be a nurse.”
After moving to Las Vegas, she took horticulture courses at UNLV and worked as a lab assistant for a small practice in Boulder City. A fellow lab assistant suggested she become a nurse, but she shrugged off the idea, enjoying her classes at the time. Until the day of the bug board.
“I was working in the greenhouse, and the professor said we had to do a bug board, where you collect bugs out of the garden and pin them to a board," she said. "I said, ‘Oh, no, I don't do stuff with bugs, ever.' I ended up going to the college office and changed my major to nursing.”
Lustig graduated in 2005 with a bachelor of science in nursing. She hadn't planned on continuing on to a master's at UNLV, but while working as a home health nurse, one of her patients had an allergic reaction to his antibiotics. She called the patient's physician over and over, but it took the doctor three days to return the call. The patient was eventually stabilized, but he told Lustig directly she should go back to school.
“I said, ‘Why would I go back to school to be a doctor; I’m a great nurse?’ He said, ‘Because you know what to do and because patients like me have to wait for proper care,’” Lustig said.
She chose to become a nurse practitioner, earning her degree in 2012.
Becoming a businesswoman
The idea to open a clinic started for Lustig with a phone call on her birthday in October 2019. A nephrologist asked her to meet a physician looking to sell his practice. Originally, she thought she might be asked to help step in under his supervision, but Lustig found out she was being offered everything, including the practice and the building it was housed in.
“All the ducks were in a row, and it just seemed like it was meant to be,” she said. “Is it terrifying? Oh my gosh, yes. I do not have a business degree, and it wasn't something over the years I was planning on doing. It just happened.”
Taking over a clinic takes time, especially for someone with no prior business experience. The first step was getting the legal, financial, and technical logistics squared away.
Lustig’s previous medical assistant joined her at the new practice, along with many of her original patients, helping ease the transition. Also essential was her office manager.
“Even though I have years of experience as a nurse practitioner, I have zero as a business owner and calling the shots”, she said. “I've always worked for big companies. I always did what people told me to, and now I'm calling the shots. That really pushed me to grow as a businesswoman and person.”
Forced to adapt
As the Lustig Health & Wellness Center opened, COVID-19 cases began popping up over the next two months. Lustig countered a general nervousness with proactivity.
“March 16 is when the pandemic really hit the fan for us. My office manager and I met at 6 p.m. on the 15th and said, ‘What do you think we should to do? I said, ‘Can we get going with telehealth? That'll be something in the meantime while everything is shut down.”
The office manager found a HIPAA-compliant program to work with their electronic medical records, and they started using it the next day. Lustig’s practice went to total telehealth, meeting and diagnosing patients virtually, using similar procedures as if they would have an office visit.
Since going completely to a telehealth model a year ago, she feels she’s grown as a nurse as much as an administrator.
“I've been forced to use my ears more and read body cues more,” she said. “I've treated more anxiety and depression than I thought was even possible, but I've been able to fine tune those psychiatric skills, which I was never really good at. I've addressed more wounds and taught patients, family members how to do wound care than I care to say.”