On the Other Side of the Rails
Four Lessons COVID-19 Taught Me About Community Health Advocacy
Jenny Berten, RN, PHN
I am a college health nurse who works in the San Francisco Bay Area. I love supporting college students as they learn to navigate health care independently. I love our clinic, which is situated on a rural college campus amongst rolling hills and majestic California oaks. It was all so lovely until March of 2020 when SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) led to the world pandemic, sending a majority of United States college students home to shelter in place.
Spring turned to summer and I found myself on the College COVID-19 Leadership Planning Committee for Student Safety. To create COVID-19 best care practices, we tracked SARS-CoV-2 trends domestically and overseas. We followed the devastation this stealth pathogen caused hundreds of thousands of patients and the horrendous emotional toll frontline health care workers suffered. We interpreted COVID-19 pandemic curves, case rates, equity indexes, positivity rates, ICU capacity, and emerging facts about SARS-CoV-2. We became COVID-19 experts.
Friends called to ask me questions about COVID-19. Can I meet up with others during the shelter-in-place? Why do I need a COVID-19 test? Can I even access a COVID-19 test? Should I travel this summer? How do I properly isolate to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
I initiated a COVID-19 community health advocacy Saturday meetup where I spoke about topics including the importance of contact tracing, social bubbles and their implications, COVID-19 testing interpretation and limitations, and the science of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Starting a community health advocacy group was a lovely way to connect virtually with friends during the isolating months of shelter-in-place. Through this group and the many questions I received, I learned 4 important lessons about community health advocacy.
1) Help find accurate information
A key goal in health advocacy is to offer solid facts that empower individuals to make informed decisions. People don’t want to be told what not to do; they are in search of pertinent facts to help them make sound decisions. I help friends interpret the department of health orders so they can turn those recommendations into actions.
2) Freely share with those who seek your advice
As a college health RN, I was asked by a community member who mentors college-bound students to paint a picture of what these students could expect in their first year of college during the world pandemic. I detailed how dormitory life might look different this year, that masking would be the norm on campus, that virtual learning could be expected, and that social activities would be on hold to help COVID mitigation.
3) Surround yourself with people who lift you
Speak your advocacy truth and notice who sticks around—this is your tribe. Together you can create a vision of a more perfect world and then determine how your everyday actions will get you there. Sharing both small and large health advocacy strides with this group of individuals inspires hope and furthers change. Build community partnerships and strive to understand opposing perspectives as you make progress toward your community health goals.
To serve the needs of an individual or a community, intently listening to their challenges is imperative. An individual cannot be served when we make assumptions about their situation or needs. When we hear an individual’s concerns, we are best informed as to where our advocacy collaboration can begin.
Through your emergency department nursing practice, you have become an expert health advocate. At every turn, emergency nurses help their patients make informed treatment decisions in the most critical clinical moments and advocate to ensure appropriate access to the care the condition warrants. When medical care is paired with a magnificent nurse advocate, emergency patient outcomes are optimized. Whether you’re advocating for the COVID-19 crisis or another community issue, this is your opportunity to share your expertise and the power of your health advocacy skills to help move your community forward. Advocacy may be writing a letter to your city council or making a phone call to your senator or governor. Consider proposing a policy solution or help someone find their advocacy voice. Health advocacy can be rewarding when you meet others at the intersection of your experience and their moment of grave concern. I take pride in the COVID-19 knowledge I have gained on my journey, and the community health vision for which I advocate. The work is plentiful. The time is now. I hope you will join me in advocating for our communities in the days and years to come.
Jenny Berten, a nurse for 26 years, was a pediatric nurse in the areas of medical-surgical, transplant, oncology, postpartum and medical-psych at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University. She now works in college health where navigating COVID-19 testing, vaccinations, isolation and quarantine management have been paramount this year. She enjoys community outreach so is thrilled to be a science partner to college history students who are creating a COVID-19 documentary film. For Jenny the power of community health advocacy lies in role modeling, health messaging, using her voice for change, and collaborating with community partners for progress. Jenny can be reached via email at [email protected].
How to contribute
We encourage submissions from any reader who has been touched by the healthcare system. Some contributors may be involved directly in patient care and might want to share the impact a patient, family, or colleague had on them. Others may want to write about life “on the other side of the rails” …those moments when the caregiver becomes the patient…or maybe sees healthcare from the vantage point of a family member. Inquiries can be sent to [email protected]
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