For Dawn Costanzo, RN, co-owning a home health care agency isn’t her first line of work. It isn’t even her second or her third. When the enterprising ohio native and her business partner took over the Charleston, S.C.-based Interim Healthcare, she’d already had a decade-long career in law enforcement, launched a small cleaning business and earned her nursing degree off-hours while caring for two young children.
“I wanted a career where it was a plentiful job that wasn’t ever going to be phased out,” she says. “There’s so many different avenues of nursing that you can do;
the sky’s the limit.”
To the chagrin of her grandmothers, both nurses, Costanzo says she’d wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement since her late teens or early twenties. She worked at the county correctional facility while awaiting an opening in the Charleston PD. rising through the ranks from foot patrol, she worked seven of her 10 years on the force in the narcotics unit, where she collaborated with the FBI and DEa on several cases.
“I loved it!” Costanzo gushes. “We had such a good time. It was super-duper fun.”
Of course, her idea of fun was getting into character to do heroin buys in some of the city’s most highly trafficked drug areas. In a bit of synchronicity, Costanzo recalls how she once got dressed as a nurse by borrowing a set of scrubs and a stethoscope from the wife of a fellow officer. The operation was monitored by her unit, and the vehicle was wired to capture the transaction, so she felt safe, but even so, Costanzo says, she never had any worries about being believable as a customer.
“The bad part is it really doesn’t matter [to the dealers] what you look like,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, an attorney. I grew up in a really small town; it was pretty enlightening for me to see everything I got to see.”
Buy-and-busts like those in which Costanzo participated were only targeted at street-level issues, she says, but her hard work earned her promotions. The trouble she began to have, however, was managing motherhood while working long, consecutive shifts. In law enforcement, Costanzo says, “you’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot.
“If you’ve got the scorned ex-girlfriend telling you about [a drug dealer’s] lifestyle, you’ve got to keep going, whereas [nursing] gives us the flexibility of not having to pull the all-nighter because someone’s turning on somebody,” she says.
“It was getting really hard schedule-wise,” Costanzo says. “We’ve been up 24-48 hours in a row, unfortunately, because something’s gone on, and that’s difficult for a childcare situation. [Plus,] I wanted to be there for all my kids’ things.”
Moreover, she says, although the imminent risks of a career in law enforcement can weigh on any parent, it was especially difficult for her as a woman, given the cultural issues of the workplace.
“I enjoyed all of what I did,” Costanzo says. “It was wonderful. unfortunately, [policing is] a maledominated industry; I decided it was time for me to go so that I could have a career that was more female-oriented.”
That’s not to say that the lessons of her days on the force haven’t influenced her parenting strategies.
“I make ‘em tow a pretty tight line,” she says. “[My kids] really can’t get away with much. Their dad is a police officer, and both of his brothers are police officers too. They have all that around them. They’re pretty well-versed in it.”
The other important relationship to come out of Costanzo’s law enforcement days was that of her business partner and Interim Healthcare co-owner, Paula Tharp. Tharp was a fellow officer with whom Costanzo has been friends for years. The two even established their own cleaning business, moonlighting in their policing off-hours.
Like Costanzo, Tharp is also a mother, and the two women shared a vision of finding a more familyoriented profession. When Tharp was called away to work a security detail for the 2004 G8 Summit in Savannah, Ga., Costanzo watched her daughter for a week along with her own children.
“We always know at the end of the day, she or I can be the back-up,” Costanzo says.
Costanzo’s commitment to caring opened the door for her to run Interim Healthcare. While she was in nursing school, she learned that the sister-in-law of one of her good friends was transitioning to homebased care for treatment of her multiple sclerosis. Interim offered Costanzo a position caring for the woman, and she ended up “having a career discussion” with the patient’s husband. unbeknownst to Costanzo, he was a financier who’d helped establish several small businesses. When he learned that Costanzo and Tharp were working to put up their own shingle, he arranged a meeting with the owners of Interim Healthcare, who were looking to retire.
“I guess he saw the opportunity in our drive, that we’d had a small business before,” Costanzo says. “Then we went ahead and made the venture from law enforcement together.”
Costanzo’s other former professional lives have also continued to pay dividends in her work with Interim Healthcare. In one instance, she and Tharp put their cleaning skills to use assisting a patient whose home was crumbling under the weight of her depression.
“We had this patient and she had stopped services with us, and then all of a sudden I get a phone call from her,” Costanzo says. “Her house was a mess. She hadn’t showered in days. She was super skinny and hadn’t eaten. We got her house cleaned up, got her back on with services and got her back in with her physician. She’s still our patient to this day.
“That’s what we want to do: keep people in their homes, keep them where they want to stay and help them live their lives to the fullest,” she says. “For us, this is very personal.”
Whatever her occupation, Costanzo sees her working life as “all still in the public service industry.”
“People are just happier to see me now than when I was a cop,” she laughs. “They don’t lock the door when I knock.”