On Being a Public Health Nurse

How did you find your way into your field?

Health and illness have been interesting to me at least since high school, but I am much more inclined to think about the big picture than the cell-level processes. I loved chemistry and enjoyed biology just fine, but what I really loved was the way that culture and society influence health and decision-making. I’m also a dabbler and a generalist – I find many things compelling and love making connections between different fields that influence each other, especially if I’m able to use those connections to explain something about health. 

So, all that is a set up to say that I’m a public health nurse, which means that I get to think about the root causes of health and illness. I had some ideas about nursing when I was at Stanford (Class of 2008), and I took HumBio, but at that time I was focused on agricultural policy and the global food system. I basically wanted to be Roz Naylor, not that I could articulate it at the time nor had the courage to tell her in a class. When I started leaning more toward healthcare, all I really knew was that I didn’t want to be a doctor. I floated the idea of nursing to a professor who shall remain unnamed, who ungraciously told me that I’d be wasting my Stanford education if I went into nursing.

After college, I worked with Adele Hayutin at the Stanford Center on Longevity, who taught me how to love spreadsheets and who invested time and energy into helping me find my direction and become a better employee. I started taking prerequisite courses for nursing school while I was at SCL. Part of that work put me in touch with health policy experts. I was impressed with their work but thought that I would need some clinical experience taking care of sick people before I should try to tell anyone how to change healthcare. In May of 2011, I moved to Texas to start UT-Austin’s Alternate Entry Master of Science in Nursing (AE-MSN) program. 

Tell me about your role at the company you work at.

I work at a nonprofit called TACHC that is a membership organization for safety-net health care providers in Texas. These are primary care clinics that provide high quality, affordable health care to people regardless of their health insurance status or ability to pay. (If you want to learn about these clinics, which came out of the civil rights movement, check out the videos on our national counterpart’s website.) 

My work at TACHC varies from week to week. I use my clinical training to work out protocols for processes at the health centers. I work on some projects to support providers, including a peer review network and training and mentorship opportunities. I teach about quality improvement strategies for health care. On my favorite days, I get to look at data from our members on issues like colorectal cancer screening or their efforts to get recognition as patient-centered medical homes.

What do you think are some interesting things happening in your field?

Nursing as a profession is undergoing a lot of necessary positive changes. It’s traditionally a job that women have done, and there are some deeply ingrained attitudes connected to gender and hierarchies that I find seriously troubling. I strongly object to the idea that it’s not a valid intellectual pursuit and is only a lesser sibling to medicine. Sometimes these two misconceptions get packaged together, that nursing is for women because women aren’t as smart as men, and it usually comes with the implication that medicine is better or more valuable than nursing. That’s terrible for nurses and doctors, and it’s especially terrible for patients. I could go on and on about this and am still figuring out how to describe the problems that I see. Luckily, there are some great people working on these issues, including the Stanford Nurse Alumnae group, which does great work to support students who are interested in nursing. Did you know Stanford used to have a nursing school? I want it to re-open so that I can teach at my alma mater!