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Conversations with the Director: Kristin M. Brusuelas

February 28, 2013

Kristin M. Brusuelas MPH

Doing Anything Needed to Get the Job Done – Public health advisors work 24/7 to save lives in the field: A Conversation with Kristin M. Brusuelas, MPH, Field Services Office Director, OSTLTS

Kristin M. Brusuelas, MPH, has spent more than half of her career traveling across the country and around the globe as a public health advisor for CDC. These days, you can find her behind a desk directing the Field Services Office in CDC’s Office for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Support (OSTLTS), where she helps shape the experiences and careers of the agency’s newest public health workers. Brusuelas shared her experiences – and riveting stories – with CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, during a recent Conversation with the Director talk.

Experiences from the Field

In the field, I was witness to the incredible lives people have to live,” Brusuelas said to Frieden. She explained the barriers young mothers living in Chicago’s high-rise housing projects were up against to get their children immunized. The elevators were not safe and neither were the stairwells, where drug dealers often loitered. “Coming out of their building was a risk to their families’ safety, so we did what we had to do as public health workers—escort them down to the mobile vaccine unit and back up to their homes to get the kids the vaccinations they needed.” Often, this meant 13-plus flights of stairs.

She admits there were moments of fear—like the time she, a STD-HIV public health worker, was threatened by an armed man in rural Texas who did not want her interfering with his wife’s case of syphilis. She told Frieden that she eventually connected with the man’s wife to complete her mission of getting the woman treated, and added that, despite the dangers, her field work has been the highlight of her 20-year career in public health with CDC.

"In the field, you’re working 24/7, but you’re seeing a difference and saving lives,” said Brusuelas about her 12 years of field work experience. “To me, field work has been the most rewarding part of my whole career,” Brusuelas added with a smile. “That’s the great part about my job now as director of the Field Services Office at CDC. I’m creating those memorable work and life experiences for the next generation of public health advisors."

Training the Next Generation

Brusuelas runs two main programs out of her office to attract, train, and mentor this next generation for careers in public health. The Public Health Associate Program (PHAP) is a competitive two-year CDC fellowship for recent college graduates (this year’s application period just ended with more than 4,000 applicants for the 133 planned spots!). PHAP associates are assigned to state, tribal, local, and territorial public health agencies where they gain frontline experience that will serve as a foundation for their public health careers, uniquely qualifying them for jobs and graduate school. Since 2007, this program has attracted 251 young professionals to careers in public health, and has grown exponentially in the past two years.

For master’s-level public health professionals, the Public Health Prevention Service (PHPS) fellowship provides a training and service opportunity with CDC. PHPS fellows focus on public health program management and gain valuable hands-on experience in program planning, implementation, and evaluation at both CDC and with state, local, and other public health organizations. PHPS graduates are ready for the highly competitive public health job market—43 percent are employed in federal agencies and 23 percent have careers with state or local health departments.

“There’s a real refresh taking place of what it means to be a public health advisor,” said Frieden, adding to Brusuelas’ discussion of these training programs. “From healthcare structure and informatics, to communications and social media, there are a lot of new skills for these individuals to develop and master for the modern time.” Frieden gladly confirmed his strong support of frontline public health training.

Focus for Year Ahead

Toward the end of their conversation, Frieden asked about Brusuelas’ goals for the Field Services Office for the year ahead. “Our focus is to build a model for what it means to be a public health advisor for CDC,” she said. While day-to-day work assignments differ for each person, Brusuelas explained, there needs to be consistency in how individuals are trained, supervised, and mentored—and, importantly, what is expected of them as federal employees.

“I think about my own experiences as a public health advisor, and while the job varied place-to-place, I always remembered I was representing CDC in the field. I had an expectation as a fed to work harder, be willing to do anything needed to get the job done, give credit for success to the locals, and clean up when things did not go as planned,” she said. “After all, I was a guest in their [the state/local health departments’] home.”

This Snapshot by Jessica Podlaski.

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