Public Health Post continues PHProust, our take on a questionnaire answered by French philosopher Marcel Proust and played as a Victorian-era parlor game. The questions are intended to be answered briefly, and various versions have been used on talk shows and in popular publications. We ask a similar set of public health focused questions to get to know our profile subjects.
What is your idea of perfect health?
I would say physical and mental wellness.
If you could follow only one health leader on Twitter, who would it be, and why?
Ashish Jha, I find him very calming.
What did they never teach you in public health school that you wish they had?
It can be sticky.
What do you mean by sticky?
Oh you’re in [food/housing] inspections or you’re out and about and you come back and your feet are kind of sticky. That that’s what I mean.
What’s your greatest public health fear?
Not having the answer.
What’s your go-to source of public health information?
I would say the CDC and state websites. And then, of course … my public health colleagues.
What words or phrases are most overused in public health?
Under an abundance of caution
What do you consider your greatest professional achievement?
That I’m a resource to my staff and colleagues, and that they see me as such.
What has been the hardest public health message to communicate?
I don’t have the answer, but will strive to get that for you.
What do you most dislike about the job?
I can’t think of anything… Oh my messy office! (Within view were coveralls for a messy inspection a can of disinfecting wipes, masks, fitness medals, an emergency preparedness radio, magnets advertising hazardous site cleanups.)
What advice would you give someone coming into public health?
Take it all in and ask for as many assignments as you can get.
When residents just aren’t sure who to call for help, it’s often the health department they reach out to.
“Everybody can relate something to their personal or physical health,” said Heidi Porter, Bedford’s director of health and human services.
Frequently, those requests are routine like how to find a vaccine, apply for a food permit, or what to do if the trash isn’t picked up. But sometimes they stray into more unusual territory – someone seeking help with a skunk at their house, or the call Porter received about a pig one weekend.
The pig was roaming the streets of Bedford, she said. Calling the health director did make sense, after all her department issues animal permits. But what to do about a 400-pound pig out for a stroll wasn’t something Porter learned while pursuing her master of public health degree. The pig did make it back home thanks to the help of animal specialists, and enjoys his annual health department inspection visits where Porter scratches him with a rake and feeds him sweet potatoes.
Porter was an environmental consultant in the private sector before her first public health job. When she joined Bedford as director in 2011, she led only health department staff. Because of natural collaboration already occurring, town officials subsequently realized it made sense to integrate the council on aging, youth and family services, veterans’ services, food bank, and mental health counseling into a health and human services department led by Porter.
“It’s been a really awesome opportunity to bring the idea of whole health and wellness together and to see how that really impacts the person and a community,” Porter said, going on to describe a pandemic response she’s proud of. She expanded the former food pantry services for Bedford residents so that staff is able to reach clients with additional health education and public health services through the town run food bank.
State grant funding has allowed groups of health departments throughout the commonwealth to add shared regional staff to increase capacity. Bedford and neighboring towns are adding a regional public health nurse, a regional inspector, and a regional epidemiologist, increasing capacity for towns who need those services. For the moment, Porter says, her department is adequately funded and looking forward to returning to some routine programming this fall, as the demands of COVID-19 fade.
Most of her staff has been with her for at least six years, and she attributes the team’s surviving the pandemic to caring relationship that existed pre-pandemic.
“We recognize we went through this traumatic experience together,” said Porter, who starts most days checking in with her staff and reviewing what’s expected for the day. “We were able to work through it together and we recognize that it was pretty bad, but thank goodness we had someone else to be there with us to support us.”
“I feel for those small towns that don’t have staff, that don’t have public health colleagues or even a collaborative, if they were new to public health they didn’t have the opportunity to establish those relationships [during COVID].”
And what was traumatic during the pandemic, Porter said, were public expectations, and folks wanting answers they didn’t have. Having to tell residents to wait for testing or to wait for a vaccine. That they needed to make use of the available mitigation strategies including masking up and maintaining distance.
“That was really one of the hardest parts of it,” Porter said. “How to explain to the public how to feel safe without having the full toolbox of tools.”