Ask someone what, in their opinion, are considered self-less occupations, and for many it wouldn’t be surprising to hear teacher, social worker, or nurse. And while these occupations are considered vastly different from one another, Director of School Health Shauna Severo says that the role of a public health nurse actually encompasses all three.
Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities. It is the role of the public health nurse to promote and protect the health of populations using knowledge from nursing, social, and public health.
Shauna’s passion for public health began early in her career. While she’s worked for the Fairfax County Health Department for the past 37 years, Shauna began her nursing career in the hospital.
“I worked at a hospital because at the time, public health would not take nurses who did not have acute care experience,” said Shauna.
For hospital nurses, the main focus is to save or to improve patients’ lives in that moment of time. Public health nurses, on the other hand, focus on the long-haul—offering services that will help improve the health of an entire population over time.
“I’ve been asked what I love about public health – I love the fact that there’s a social justice focus, we are lifting people up and we work with people to achieve their best life,” said Shauna.
“[and] I was drawn to nursing because I wanted to help others – that may sound trite, and I think a lot of people say that – but I was really drawn to public health because of my experience working in the hospital. I didn’t have time to do the education and teaching that I wanted to do with patients, and I really felt like our focus should be on preventing illness instead of only having time to treat people who are ill.”
After working at the Health Department for a couple of years, Shauna decided to go back to George Mason University, where she earned her nursing degree, to pursue a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus in health care management.
During this time, public health was focused on the AIDS epidemic in trying to slow the spread of disease and addressing a swath of misinformation on how the disease spreads.
“The Health Department established an HIV/AIDS Services Unit that I was a part of developing along with others,” said Shauna. “We were out on the front lines helping organizations develop policies on how to address HIV/AIDS in the workplace… there was a lot of discrimination… so there was a lot of work to be done around dispelling myths and allying fears.”
When looking back on her career, there is so much that Shauna is proud of, including her work with the HIV/AIDS Services Unit. “I was really proud of that opportunity, but I think more than that is the opportunity to work with new nurses who come in from acute care settings or other types of nursing and help orient to public health nursing which is very specialized,” said Shauna. “Watching [them] learn and grow and develop the passion I have for public health is very rewarding and is probably one of the things I have enjoyed most about my career here.”
Shauna points out that at the beginning of her career, health departments were very nurse focused identifying and slowing the spread of disease within a community and immunizing against vaccine-preventable diseases such as smallpox and measles. However, the complexity of our community health has increased.
“What I’ve seen over the years is the evolution of public health and the recognition that we need people with a strong background in epidemiology… outreach and community engagement, as well as our support systems like communications and technology, which are critical,” said Shauna. “It’s more a collaborative approach and recognizing that each one of these disciplines brings an expertise that we need in order to have a strong and well-functioning health department.”
“When we look at the data, the issues we are… trying to address in the larger community is having access to medical care,” said Shauna. “So, in terms of promoting health equity, we are making sure that people have access to a medical home, and we are addressing some of the social determinants of health – the conditions under which you live and the opportunity to access the resources you need to remain healthy – those are the issues we are focusing on as a health department.”
Note: updated to include corrected degree information on June 1.