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Guest Post: A Passion for Global Public Health, by Courtney Peragallo, CHES®

Public health has been in my blood for as long as I can remember, ever since I lost my Mom from cancer when I was 12. To this day, I look back and see so clearly that it was much more than the cancer specialists and medical professionals who helped her stay alive for as long as she did. I believe her drive to continue fighting was a result of public health practice. My Mom graduated with her PhD prior to her diagnosis when I was a kid and so I like to think I was exposed to the field of health before I was able to define what it was.

During her 8-year cancer battle with Leiomyosarcoma, I saw my Mom form strong support networks, share her experiences with other cancer patients around the world, and inspire thousands of people, all of which showed up at her funeral. She showed me what it meant to be a leader in spite of facing your biggest tribulation in life, and this is the type of impact I want to have on others! I learned from her example and I am forever indebted to public health practice because of this.

My passion for global health began when I volunteered in a small town on the coast of Perú, where I lived with a host family for the summer and then returned three separate occasions because of the relationship I formed with my host mom. She was a monolingual Spanish speaker and is the reason why I studied so hard and applied myself for years in order to master the Spanish language. I learned how to empathize and build trust within another culture. This is what I try to do in every interaction I have with every global population I work with, which has brought me to my most recent work with Spanish-speaking farmworkers.

I work as a Project Coordinator, implementing two programs within the North Carolina Farmworker Health Program (NCFHP) among a service area of around 1,000 Spanish-speaking farmworkers. NCFHP is a federal health program through the Office of Rural Health, located within the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS). This program provides health services, resources, and education to Spanish-speaking farmworkers. There are many organizations within this program that work towards protecting farmworkers and their dependents in NC.

The projects I am working on relate to behavioral health and emergency preparedness. I am stationed at one of the organizations within NCFHP, where I implement these projects among their service area of farmworkers in rural southeastern NC. This region, in particular, presents significant challenges for public health because not only is it drastically underserved, but the entire service area of farmworkers resides in high flood risk zones year-round. In the event of a natural disaster, there is always a threat of devastation, as evidenced by Hurricane Florence in 2018.

In light of the current pandemic and the start of the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season, I am coordinating two projects within NCFHP. These projects relate to behavioral health, COVID protections, and natural disaster preparedness for farmworkers. I am helping organizations within NCFHP expand their capacity and better serve farmworkers.

Recently, I have been securing external funding through grants, allocating resources and defining stakeholders at a community and state level, disseminating culturally-appropriate education, and strengthening my cultural competency skills on a daily basis through engaging with the target population and reporting to agencies that can help them. This work is important to me because these populations of farmworkers are disproportionately affected by poor health outcomes, including major complications and higher mortality from COVID-19, due to the high prevalence of chronic conditions. My favorite thing about this role is to be able to work towards health equity, build resilience within their communities, and to fight for social justice so that a vulnerable population can be given a voice.

As a hobby, I created an Instagram account in 2019 where I share about my experiences in public health, continuing education opportunities to pursue as a CHES®, and also to share some yummy food that I make by supporting local farmers and farmworkers here in NC (one of the top agricultural-producing states in the nation). I do this to promote awareness because I know that not many people think about who is harvesting our food and I emphasize the importance of supporting them. I have been jokingly referred to as “the Hermione of public health” because of my passion, so my Instagram handle is “moodymadeyefoodie”.

READ MORE: How to Study for the CHES Exam

I prepare for and respond to public health threats most notably natural disasters, COVID, and behavioral health concerns among farmworkers. The pandemic has brought unique challenges in responding to crises among this population. The main issue is attempting to implement Telehealth practices for a population that already faces significant barriers to care. These barriers relate back to the social determinants of health and include farmworkers’ geographic location in a rural and isolated area, the cultural stigma surrounding healthcare (particularly mental health), and their limited access to technology and transportation. It is even more of a challenge because in NC, we have not seen a decrease in cases and are simultaneously entering the beginning of the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season.

Posted by Jessica Wessner at 12:01 PM
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