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Packing up after 35 years in public health

November 2, 2008
By KURT NESBITT — Journal Staff Writer

NEW ULM - Anita Hoffmann has plenty of boxes filled with the things she's accumulated over the course of the 37 years she has spent with Brown County Public Health.

Hoffmann retired from her position as director of the department on Oct. 31.

"I think people are born public health nurses. I always loved the prevention aspect and I love to work with families. It's not like hospitals. It's more an independent practitioner role so you have to problem-solve. Each day is a different day. There's always a new adventure and I'm probably going to miss that," she said.

Article Photos

Anita Hoffmann has worked for Brown County Public Health since 1971.

Hoffmann first became interested in nursing when she was a little girl. She recalls a neighbor, who went to nursing school, as piquing her interest in learning about the profession.

Hoffmann grew up in a part of Nicollet County north of New Ulm. She said women had a limited range of things they could be, even in those days, and she wanted to be a nurse.

Hoffmann learned about the College of St. Theresa through a job fair and decided to enroll after she graduated from Cathedral High School. At the time, St. Theresa's was among the top nursing schools in the U.S.

Once Hoffmann graduated, she came back to New Ulm and did a clinical study at the old Union Hospital in New Ulm before she took a position as a school nurse for New Ulm Public Schools. She held the job for 17 months before she became pregnant with her first child and left because the district did not allow maternity leave. Hoffmann never returned.

"In 1971, it seems really archaic but that's what it was," she said.

Hoffmann answered an ad in a local newspaper for a part-time public health nurse who could coordinate the county's new home health care program. She got the job in the summer of 1971.

Hoffmann's career closely follows the advancement of home health care. In fact, it started work shortly before she did.

The home health care program in Brown County was formally established in March of 1971 after about five years of discussion among the county nursing board, members of the community and county officials. The 1965 Medicare amendments to the Social Security Act started the conversation about the issue.

After the home health care program was established, the Minnesota Department of Health hired a public health nurse, Lucy Leonard, to develop the policies and staffing that were required for the program to operate as a Medicare-approved home health program. Leonard hired Hoffmann as a part-time public health nurse to work as the home health care coordinator.

Hoffmann's eventual move away from nursing and towards administration happened by default not too long after she joined the department. She was actually picked for the job during a meeting of the county's four Public Health nurses by another Public Health nurse, Audrey Schlong, who simply said "Anita, you'll be here longer than anyone else!". That was in 1973.

Hoffmann was the youngest Public Health director in Minnesota at that time. Hoffmann has held the job ever since then.

"I was young, 23, 25...the others were school nurses and they were off during the summer and they didn't want to be the director," Hoffmann said.

Years later, more public health programs translated into another change in Hoffmann's duties. In the early days, Hoffmann's job was more nursing that administrating until 1975, when the department began adding more programs and Hoffmann's caseload evolved away from her.

She credits a hospital-based independent study program for public health nurses started by the University of Minnesota for teaching her how to budget and staff a public health department. After she completed that program, Hoffmann knew she wanted to continue as director. She mentions the Local Public Health Association is also a product of that same program.

"For me, working for 37 1/2 years in Brown County Public Health, there have been tremendous changes, and then again, what goes around comes around, and the more things change, the more they stay the same!," said Hoffmann. "In the early 1970s, public health nurses served as 'triage' staff in disaster drills. Today, Public Health is at the forefront of planning for pandemic influenza or other threats and disasters affecting the health of the public."

The start of more government programs in the mid-1970s and the recognition of many different public health needs are the reasons why the Public Health department has grown to three times the size of what it was in the early '70s. It had a little over two positions in 1971 and now has 16 full-timers in 2008. In the '70s, the Public Health budget was $73,000; the county just approved a $1.7 million budget for the same department for 2009.

Gloria Pearson joined Public Health in 1974 to take over Hoffmann's old role as home care supervisor. Pearson was a nursing student at Mankato State University who spent some time with Brown County Public Health. She was working in a hospital when she learned about a job with the department.

"When I started, it was four nurses in the basement of the courthouse. There were four desks and a phone in the middle of the room, so that tells you right there (what the department was like)," Pearson said.

The department was also facing different health issues 35 years ago, some of which have recently resurfaced.

"In 1971, we were stopping smallpox and so there were smallpox vaccines, as well as polio, measles, mumps, but all those programs were being scales down because the Center for Disease Prevention declared smallpox eradicated," said Hoffmann.

Smallpox threats resurfaced in 2001 as concerns about bioterrorism, which uses biological weapons like infections diseases, rose in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington D.C.

In 1976, the swine flu clinics involved several Brown County citizens. These days, Public Health has held mass dispensing drills to simulate an actual outbreak.

Public Health used to be a part of Civil Defense responses, since there were no first responders in the early 1970s. It is now involved with certain Homeland Security measures.

Hoffmann also sees that family structures have changed in the 21st Century. Children are expected to do more now than they were 40 years ago. At the same time, incidence of obesity and diabetes in children is also higher.

"There has been such a culture change from what it was in 1971 and all of these things have effects on health," said Hoffmann.

While Hoffmann has held the title of Public Health Director for most of her career with Brown County, she has held other positions in addition to her main job.

In 1987, the county board decided to explore the idea of having a personnel director and appointed Hoffmann, who then had to play two roles side-by-side. The workload meant she had to sometimes do Public Health work at night and Personnel work by day.

When the first Gulf War began in 1991, County Administrator Jerry Bentz was deployed to a military base in the southern U.S. to help train soldiers; Hoffmann was appointed to serve as the interim county administrator.

"It was a little crazy," she said.

Today, Hoffmann still checks blood pressure, acts as the department's health educator when no one else is available and attends health fairs, which, she says, allow her to keep in touch with people's needs.

Hoffmann's staff and family held a private retirement party for her on Oct. 17. A public reception for her took place at the New Ulm Country Club on Oct. 30.

"It's really going to be different without her. She's a strong leader and there's a whole gamut of people who benefitted from Anita's efforts. It's sort of a strong pillar that isn't necessarily seen right away," said Pearson.



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