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Title: Why Public Health Matters
Author: Roxann L. Robinson, MSN, RN
Visit Website:

Date Posted:

April 21, 2011

Why Public Health Matters

As an experienced registered nurse working at a large teaching hospital I thought I had a good understanding of public health problems confronting our society. A few years ago I decided to step out of my comfort zone and return to school to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Because of that decision I can honestly say that I have been given a great gift that goes beyond the traditional learning experiences in the classroom. I have discovered that education is a life-long opportunity to continually learn about ourselves and the people in our community.

For one of my classes I spent time at a local shelter located downtown in a large urban setting. Up until that experience I was unaware of the true problem of homelessness in our state. As I passed the disheveled man sitting on the park bench with a shopping cart next to him full of belongings, I would often think that he must have a mental health or substance abuse problem. However, because of my experiences at the shelter, I came to realize homelessness is an enormous societal issue that is a result of many factors beyond the control of that man on the park bench.

Through the opportunities that I was given, I observed people in the lower levels of society struggling to simply meet their basic human needs of food and shelter. When I looked into the faces of the many people who filed through the breakfast line, I ótarted to realize that we are all interconnected. The man in the torn clothing is someone’s son; the woman with the bruises on her arms is someone’s daughter. If I learned anything that year it was humility and gratitude. I was humbled by the caring and genuine people that I met and I was grateful that I was given the opportunity to look inside myself and realize how truly lucky I am.

From now on whenever I hear someone in the media talk about the “face of poverty” it will no longer be a faceless nonentity to me. From now on that phrase will have a face, as well as a name, attached to it. I will be reminded of Carlos, a Vietnam veteran, who now lives under a bridge because he feels safer there than on the streets. I will think of Robert who lives in a room that gets so hot in the summer he hangs his insulin out the window by a string because it’s cooler outside than in his room. I will smile when I think of Maria who was always laughing and smiling at me in the morning as I fixed her coffee. I will think of the man who never told me his name but who liked to sit in the corner and listen to the jazz music we played because it gave him a break from all the noise outside.

I went into the experience wondering and worrying about what I was going to teach the people who frequent the soup kitchen at the shelter. As it were I shouldn’t have worried for they were the ones who taught me some very valuable lessons. I learned one person can make a difference. I realized "no man is an island”. I learned that little things can have a huge impact. And finally I realized that we all want, need, and deserve the same things. Things like respect, health, friendship, and of course, love.

From the time that I spent at that shelter I saw first-hand the terrible toll that poverty and inadequate housing have had on the men, women, and children that I saw on a weekly basis. It is amazing to me that I live in one of the richest societies on the planet and yet so many of its citizens don’t have access to proper medical care, adequate shelter, and clean water and food. Being there inspired me to become more involved in my community and to be more informed about political issues. I decided to pursue a Master of Science in Nursing with a public health nursing focus so I could learn more about the issues that we as nurses are confronted with and to see if through advocacy and education I could continue to make a difference in peoples’ lives.

Environmental health, public health infrastructure, and health disparities are just a few of the many challenges that will continue to confront our society. The fight for improved public health outcomes will only be successful if each one of us comes off the sidelines and joins in the struggle. From Lillian Wald in 1911 advocating for better living conditions for immigrants living in poverty to a registered nurse in 2011 advocating for tougher environmental legislation, the battle for public health will continue for generations to come. While public health nursing has had many successes in the past, the goal for the next hundred years will be to achieve even greater ones for all members of society.

Because of these inspiring experiences, I have become a stronger advocate both academically and professionally. My increased awareness of local, national, and global issues has allowed me to see that by lending my voice to the ones already out there that this collective advocacy will ensure even more successful outcomes. This is what my time spent outside of my comfort zone has taught me and what I will take with me as I continue on this new journey. But of all the lessons that I have learned along the way the most important one is that public health matters... because people matter.

About the Author: Roxann L. Robinson is a staff nurse on a medical step-down unit at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut. She received her degree from the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut and is currently active with the Connecticut Public Health Association. She welcomes your comments and can be reached at


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