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Alumna Julie Desrochers on Gaining Perspective in Public Health

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By Sarah Tuff Dunn

“Blood is something we all have, but rarely consider,” says Julie Desrochers, the fall prevention program manager at the Vermont Department of Health, of her years working for the American Red Cross in Burlington. “I loved sharing my knowledge on the behavioral clues that make up what we consider instincts—for example, the small signs that indicate an early reaction, such as syncope—a temporary loss of consciousness caused by a fall in blood pressure—which can prevent an adverse blood donation experience or injury.”

That affinity for behavioral clues and instincts goes back to a childhood raising chickens and exploring the woods of the Northeast Kingdom, a father who was a “biologist at heart,” and a mother who was a nurse practitioner. A curiosity about climate change was the first stepping-stone out of the forest and toward earning an undergraduate degree in animal science at UVM, volunteering at an Ecuadorian organic farm, and working out west before enrolling in the UVM Master of Public Health Program.

Humans, animals, and the environment, Desrochers says, are interconnected. “We can’t have a healthy population without unifying the health of all three.”

Before getting your MPH, you worked at the Vermont Large Animal Clinic Equine Hospital and at Shelburne Rescue. What’s the difference between working with injured animals and working with injured people?

Working with animals really helps your instincts and body language. Because animals can’t verbalize pain or discomfort, you must use all your other senses to assess the situation. You must also refine your questioning techniques for the humans involved.

Otherwise, there are many similarities. Just like animals, much of human behavior arises from deeply ingrained biological factors. By understanding this, we can provide the interventions that enable people to change what they can control.

You also worked as a backcountry emergency medicine guide and ski patroller at Sugarbush. How did that come about?

I grew up ski racing and enjoyed the team aspect of that experience. I taught skiing off and on through college and in my postcollege years in Vermont and out west, but was always interested in moving to patrol. Luckily, I came from a skiing family, so the ski bum lifestyle and being outside in the worst conditions are nothing new to me. My current position in injury prevention also fits in well, as prevention and risk management are hugely important aspects of ski patrolling.

What was the most interesting aspect of your time at the American Red Cross training new staff on phlebotomy?

Working with blood donors offered an incredible opportunity to sit down with dozens of people every day and having a structured conversation about health and wellness. Being deferred for any reason can be a huge wake-up call for health. For example, many people grew to accept and live with hypertension as “normal for them.” Being denied as a donor for elevated blood pressure can be extremely upsetting, but it can also be life-changing. These are the types of conversations that happen all the time, and as an instructor, I could provide other staff with the skills to maximize efficacy and communication in these interactions.

How did the MPH program boost your career at the Vermont Department of Health?

Before, I knew what areas interested me—food systems, preparedness, emergency response, and infectious disease—but this offered me opportunities to explore types of work such as policy, programming, surveillance, outreach, etc. I gained valuable experience in data analysis, evaluation, quality improvement projects, and public health clinical connections. All these experiences contributed to an excellent background for my current position, which requires adaptability and the ability to foster strong partnerships.

What advice would you give to people interested in pursuing careers in public health?

Develop strong networking and communication skills. Much of the work in public health is done by engaging stakeholders, defining common objectives, and creating strength-based partnerships. As with any field, shadow or intern to gain insight into the profession and a feel for the day-to-day work. For me, having experience in patient care allows me greater perspective, especially on what is feasible for clinical and community health connections.

What habits or rituals do you follow to ensure your own good health?

Use technology as a tool. I have a few really useful apps on my smartphone to track nutrition and exercise. This allows me to set goals and stay on target. Make small behavioral changes. I’ve found it’s the small things that can make a big difference. If I get in the habit of setting my exercise clothes out before I go to bed at night, it’s much easier to exercise in the morning. When this is ingrained, I can add something else to the routine. And be positive. We’re creatures of habit, and millions of years of evolution have made us very good at gaining and conserving energy through eating and not exercising. I’m working on thinking less about how I’m not doing it all and thinking more about what is feasible to improve right now.

-Sarah Tuff Dunn is a freelance writer and editor living in Shelburne.

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