The position of “servant chief” gave the Renville County Public Well being Director a voice for the weak
Not all pleasant, she admits. She has enough war stories to fill a book.
“This job has never been boring,” said Bruns, who is retiring as director of Renville County Public Health later this month. “You never know what will knock on my door in the morning.”
She has been responding to all kinds of door knocks and phone calls in Renville County for 37 years. She had six years of public health experience in Sibley County and a year earlier at Arlington Municipal Hospital before starting.
Her predecessor in Renville County, Jean Kolbe, began her career in 1951 taking Mantoux tests to fight tuberculosis.
When Bruns took office in 1984, the department’s efforts expanded, but the focus remained on the weakest: the young, the old, and the poor.
The feeding program for women, infants and children began in 1985, as did the county’s first hospice program.
In the 1980s, up to 6,000 migrant workers and family members came to the district in each growing season.
“The accommodation of migrants was often very inferior,” said Bruns. It was her department’s responsibility to protect the health and safety of families.
She grew up on a dairy farm near Hector. It gave her a work ethic that helped her with many challenges, she said.
Bruns grew up between possible careers in nursing or counseling. Family and community have always meant a lot to her, she said.
A public health rotation as part of her nursing education showed her that public health was where it belonged.
She appreciated the mix of science and nursing.
“But also the focus on community justice,” she said of public health. “Having a voice for those who may not have a voice.”
Her career has taught her that poverty is often the greatest determinant of a person’s health. It coincides with education, employment, health insurance and housing. These are important factors in our physical and mental wellbeing, she said.
Public health workers continue to provide one-on-one care, whether through home visits to the elderly or services to expectant mothers.
The focus today is increasingly on improving the health of entire population groups, be they expectant mothers, children in low-income households or people struggling with depression and anxiety.
“We take care of the individual, but look at the herd,” said Bruns. “We’re really looking at herd health: what can we do to improve overall health.”
As an example, she cited the smoking cessation classes once offered by public health. Today she is working harder to promote the laws and programs that prevent young people from becoming addicted to nicotine in the first place.
She said public health got smarter and more efficient when it served the public. Bruns played a large part in this. She was a founding member of regional companies aiming to provide improved and cheaper service; Prime West Health, which offers affordable health plans to people in 24 counties; Pact for Families, a five-county program that provides mental health care to those in need.
Retirement will give Bruns and her 43 year old husband Steve more time to travel and enjoy the family. Bruns said she might be able to use the time to put some of the stories on paper about where public health has taken her.
Their stories could include many trips to so-called garbage houses. She can describe opening refrigerators and stepping back while lumps of mucus oozed out. She was in houses so overcrowded with animals and their rubbish that the ammonia corroded the electrical outlets.
Her work also brought her to the pits with the waste of a million chickens, where she saw waves of maggots like on an ocean. She has also looked at the health problems of people who get sick from hydrogen sulfide emissions from open lagoons containing millions of gallons of pig waste.
Bruns planned to retire from all the challenges a little over a year ago, but those plans have been put on hold. She said she couldn’t leave her duties to the public or staff at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She has always taken the position that public health is about being the “serving leader,” she said.
The ability to serve people continues to be the motivation for those who make public health their profession, Bruns said.
And in that regard, Bruns said she felt good to go. She said the department’s staff are very passionate about the public and are well run by her successor, Sara Benson.
But until July 1st, Bruns continues to respond to the calls and knocks on the door for help. “We got two really strange calls this morning. I can’t make up for that, ”she said in a recent interview. “I’ll go out with 100 pro. No rolling out here. “