What exactly is a public health nurse? Even the Association of Public Health Nurses (APHN) website includes the question on its website, probably because we mostly think of nurses treating patients in hospitals and clinics. However, public health nurses are the largest segment of the public health workforce and bring their skills to a variety of settings, including health departments, schools, community health centers, and private workplaces.
The first time we tried to talk with Deborah Heim, a Public Health Nurse Consultant in Wisconsin, she was pulled away on a contact tracing emergency. After another unsuccessful attempt, we were finally able to chat briefly with Deborah to learn about her work during the pandemic. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Can you talk about where you work and your role in the COVID-19 response?
I’m working in Milwaukee as a Public Health Nurse Consultant for the Southeastern region of Wisconsin. Right now we are providing regional and statewide support to our local health departments with messaging, guidance, tracking down information, and other logistical supports. I am also helping some of our local health departments with quarantine monitoring, which includes calling up people who have isolation or quarantine orders and monitoring temperatures and symptoms.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your work during the pandemic?
What I have found most challenging is what I am hearing from individual clients who are really struggling. Our region has been very badly impacted by the virus. It has thrown into sharp relief all the inequities public health has been highlighting for years. People with pre-existing asthma who get out of the hospital, then have to go back in, people who are being pressured to return to work even if they’re sick, people who are trying to isolate themselves when five people live together, people who are having trouble convincing the young people in their family that they need to quarantine even if they feel fine.
What are you most concerned about right now personally and professionally?
Our household is in a good spot because we can all work from home; we are not greatly impacted on a personal level. I’m more concerned for the healthcare workers who are doing direct patient care. Some of my friends are in the thick of this and what they are sharing with me is brutal.
What concerns you about the days and weeks to come?
I’m concerned about how much more damage is going to be done to communities that were already struggling. I really hope we can learn very clear lessons from this. Public health can save lives and should be funded to support that. As a nation, we must address the social determinants of health to decrease the damage caused by this and future pandemics.
What gives you hope at this time?
The number of people I see wearing masks and the general kindness of people helping each other. Wisconsinites are generally polite and reasonable. Even as we are really being hit by this (especially in Milwaukee), I see many signs of hope. People shouldn’t have had to participate in person in the April 7 election, but they braved two-hour lines to participate in our democratic process
What words of encouragement do you have for the public health workforce?
We are on the right side of history. This is an historic moment in which we can really tell our story, and support a narrative of the essential nature of the work we do every day behind the scenes. Hey, at least everyone knows the health department exists! Many of our health departments have had record traffic on their social media sites. I’m happy to see my colleagues stepping in and doing the critical work to tackle this event.
We asked Deborah how she was staying mentally and physically healthy these days. This photo is her response.
This story was developed in partnership with the Association of Public Health Nurses (APHN). APHN has collaborated with national partners like NNPHI to support and improve public health nursing practice since 1935.