Fran Lessans’ journey from nursing school to founder of Passport Health began 51 years ago, when her then 4 ½-year-old son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. Frustrated by the dearth of available consumer information on the incurable disease that would require lifelong management, Lessans did what her gut told her to do: She enrolled in nursing school to better learn how to manage her son’s diabetes.
While earning her bachelor’s (BSN ’80) and master’s degrees (MS ’85) at the University of Maryland School of Nursing (UMSON), Lessans demonstrated a knack for business acumen and leadership in the workforce. At a part-time job with a family planning clinic, Lessans approached her boss when a senior employee was moving on and asked to fill in. She got the job, and a substantial raise. Later, as director of student health services at the University of Baltimore (UB), Lessans parlayed a part-time marketing job under the threat of elimination into a growth position, raising $350,000 for the university and selling student health services to three other local universities.
While at UB, an encounter with a law student provided Lessans the “aha moment” that would lead her to launch Passport Health. A young woman came into the health center in tears. She had married a man from Ghana, and was planning to travel to his native land. Hospitalized in Ghana with an intestinal illness on a previous visit, the woman feared a repeat scenario. Serendipitously, Lessans had been researching travel medicine. She counseled the young woman on dietary restrictions while in Ghana. After returning from her travels, the student brought Lessans a gift, telling her she’d saved her life.
“It reminded me of my own experience with my son,” recalls Lessans, who empathized with the law student’s inability to find adequate consumer health information.
While still employed at UB’s health center, Lessans attended conferences focused on international travel and wilderness medicine, read every book on the subject she could find, and began developing consumer-friendly education materials. Word of mouth about Lessans’ expertise soon spread, with people driving hours to consult with her before traveling internationally.
In 1994, Lessans officially launched Passport Health, offering those headed abroad research-backed medical information and vaccination services. Since then, it has become the largest and leading provider of travel medicine and immunization services in North America, with more than 270 clinic locations. The company also has added to its core services — specialty vaccines, passport and visa services, biometric screenings, lab test services, wellness services, and vaccination records management services. Passport Health also has been called on to consult during national crises such as the anthrax attacks after 9/11.
But the company has not gotten away from its original mission: to educate consumers on how to stay healthy while traveling. “You can’t just hand someone a pill and say goodbye,” says Lessans, who proudly claims her clients rarely become ill while traveling.
“This is a nursing-driven business,” Lessans adds of Passport Health. Indeed, educating and empowering consumers to exert control over their own health is fundamental to nursing. Lessans maintains that connection not only through her business, but to her alma mater, too. She donates to UMSON and has served on its Board of Visitors.
“Fran Lessans’ ability to successfully address a fundamental health challenge facing travelers speaks to her prowess as an innovative nurse leader and entrepreneur,” says UMSON Dean Jane M. Kirschling, PhD, RN, FAAN.
As for Lessans’ 4 ½-year-old son who inspired her to become a nurse? He’s now a urologist and the medical director at Passport Health. C