Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Not a puff piece

I’ve learned a thing or two about writing in my life, and I know that words like “so,” “very,” and “really” are pretty much off-limits. I know that whether it’s a creative writing workshop or a journalism class, nobody really (oops) wants to read a piece about how wonderful someone or something is. In a poetry or fiction work, it’s drivel. In journalism, it’s a puff piece.

“Where’s the tension?,” “Where’s the conflict?,” would read the comments scrawled across my manuscript were I to write a story about nice people doing nice things.

So I feel that – although I’ve used my reporting this semester in stories for Professor Thomas’s class, Dr. Hume’s class, and the GA Public Health News Bureau – I haven’t had the opportunity to say what I think about the people I’ve encountered this semester, i.e. how so really very wonderful they are. So in this blog post, I’d like to take the opportunity to throw all good writing conventions out the window and speak freely. You've been warned.

Covering Madison County for this class and reporting for the GA Public Health News Bureau, I have interviewed public health nurses, doctors, emergency preparedness specialists, environmental health specialists, and nursing and public health professors (and I’m probably leaving some other professions out), and in doing so, I have met some people so dedicated to the well-being of their community, of the public, and of many people who do not have the means – or do not know they have the means – to be dedicated to their own well-being.

When I first went to the health department in Madison County, I admit, I expected to meet burned out, jaded state employees (and they have good reason to be – making at least $20k less than those who work in private hospitals and constantly absorbing the effects of seemingly endless cuts to state spending on public health). I believe I have probably met (in person or by phone) about 50 public health workers this semester, but I have not met a jaded or burned-out one yet.

When I first met Beth Heath – Madison County nurse manager and tireless source for many of my stories! – I thought she was special. I still think she is special, but I thought her willingness to work for very little just so she could be a public health nurse at a county health department was unique. Special it is, but since meeting Beth, I have met doctors, nurses, dentists, and environmental inspectors who work two jobs rather than give up public health in order to work a more lucrative job full-time.

Beth, however, does seem to embody the community spirit of public health. She took not one but two pay cuts in order to serve her community in the way she feels a public health nurse should. When Beth finished nursing school, she “had to” take a high-paying job as a pulmonary nurse at Athens Regional because, though she really wanted to work in public health, health departments at the time didn’t hire new grads. So she bided her time at ARHC until an entry-level job opened up in Jackson Co. She worked there a few years and even got promoted, but when an entry-level job opened up in Madison Co., she took it and another pay-cut. Beth believes that the community is best served by a public health nurse that lives in that community, so she applied for the demotion in order to work in the county where she lived. Sure, working close to home must have had personal advantages for Beth, but it seems to me that she wouldn't take another pay-cut just to shorten her commute by a few minutes. She had greater benefits in mind.

And it’s not just the sacrifices these folks make, it’s the modesty! In my first interview with Beth, I said, “So you took a pay cut when you left Athens Regional?” And she said, “Yeah, but everybody takes a pay cut who works in public health.”

When a dentist at the Chatham Co. health dept. mentioned that he worked a second job, I didn’t mask my admiration, and he said (with a shrug in his voice), “I don’t know anybody in public health that doesn’t work two jobs.”

Sonya Willard is one of them. She’s a nurse in Madison County, and in her “free time” she’s going for a higher nursing degree and in the remaining “free time,” she moonlights at a hospital. When I asked her why she didn’t just work in a hospital full-time – where she could easily double her salary at the least – she said she loved working at the health department too much.

Karen Palmer is an area nurse manager in the Gainesville district, and she said that when she gets a check from her weekend hospital job, she has to remind herself why she stays in public health, but that one of the reasons she stays at the health department is the opportunity it gives her to empower women to learn about and take care of their bodies.

Most people I interviewed said the health departments gave them opportunities private hospitals did not to really care for patients comprehensively, which means taking care of the whole person – not an acute issue – on a long-term basis with plenty of follow-up.

It’s not just nurses. Dr. Lynne Feldman, director of Valdosta’s Southwest district works two jobs, too. Imagine that – a doctor working two jobs. She said, “Salary and benefits are always an issue, but whether or not you like the work is also an issue.” I wish more people felt that way. (Personally I have always thought enjoying what you do is more important than the pay – yes, I know this attitude is a luxury that many can’t afford – but I know a lot of people who would think my attitude absurd.)

Another dentist – few health departments have dental programs, and the existing ones are really hanging on by (may I make a bad pun?) the skin of their teeth – took a voluntary 20% pay-cut in order to prevent his county’s dental program from being retrenched, and his hygienist voluntarily gave of 10% of her pay.

A public health authority who I interviewed asked not to be quoted on the following, and I will gladly acquiesce because it’s clearly not true. He said, “Those who work for state and county public health are either very dedicated or they can’t get a job anywhere else.”

Clearly, they can all get jobs anywhere else, and they all do! So he was right on one count: public health professionals are really, so, very dedicated.

-Sonya Collins

*I would like to apologize to every teacher, student, editor and peer-editor I’ve ever had for using so many “writing profanities” in this post.

*I’d like to acknowledge that there are many, many more people who sacrifice for public health and the health departments. I have met only a few of them and mentioned far fewer. Just a couple others are Wanda Strickland, Pam Smith, a whole crew of people in the Coastal, North, Northwest, West Central, South and Clayton Districts, i.e. they’re spread across our entire state. And since I’ve abandoned all efforts to avoid cliché and other undesirable writing conventions, I’ll sign off with this: If you meet someone who works in public health in any capacity whatsoever, please tell them thank you.


  1. I *really love* this post *so very much*--I actually did enjoy this experience and reading your post has caused me to reflect on how far (or how little) I've come.

  2. This is a wonderful piece of writing! I zipped right through it. It is really fun to read about the REAL stories behind your REAL sources... like Lori, it made me wish that I could have spent more time hanging out with the Hall Co community health professionals. Like, really cool!