Living healthy in Valencia County

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Whether you need a flu shot or straight talk about safe sex, public health nurses are here to help.

With a budget of about $187 million this year and 3,787 employees across New Mexico, the New Mexico Department of Health reaches far and wide.

Janis Marston-News-Bulletin photo: PUBLIC HEALTH CLERK DIANE GONZALES gets her yearly flu shot from Belen clinic’s public health nurse-manager Melinda Ivey.

“We touch every New Mexican in one form or another,” said David Morgan, the department’s public information officer in Las Cruces. “Our job is to inform all New Mexican’s about health-related issues.”

Those issues are as far-reaching as the department itself — varying from the dangers of standing floodwater to West Nile virus reports, from emergency preparedness for families and first-responders to replacing birth or death certificates.

No wonder the Department of Health is the state’s biggest agency, even bigger than the ever-present transportation department and its day-glo yellow and orange-vested crews.

The state of New Mexico funds about $67 million of the health department’s budget. About $80 million is federal money and could be affected by last week’s government shutdown.

However, a health department spokesman said in the short-term, nothing is affected but the department is taking a day-to-day approach as to how to respond to New Mexicans’ health needs if the shutdown continues.

By law, every county in the state must have a public health office.

In Valencia County, there are two offices, one in Belen and one in Los Lunas. On the average, close to a thousand people visit the two clinics and their 14 full-time public health employees each year.

Ask the county’s public health nurses why they’re here and there’s a common thread in their responses.

“I do it for the love of my community,” says Belen native Melinda Ivey, nurse-manager in Belen. “I’m hoping that we’re preventing illness and promoting wellness.”

“I like the preventive side of public health,” said Paula Thomas, Ivey’s counterpart in Los Lunas. “We don’t do sick people.”

Plus, said Thomas who’s been at her job for five years, every day is a challenge.

Janis Marston-News-Bulletin photo: BELEN CITY WATER DEPARTMENT employee Kenneth Reese, right, gets paperwork to fill out from public health clerk Diane Gonzales before getting his yearly flu vaccination.

Some days, the nurses are giving shots that can prevent 14 childhood diseases and are required for school. Some days, they’re at health fairs or trying to determine a common denominator in what caused an outbreak of salmonella or other epidemics.

“Hand-washing can stop a lot,” Thomas said of one of the easiest ways to prevent diseases from spreading.

Pertussis, otherwise known as whooping cough, has plagued Valencia County residents for years.

“I’d say it was an epidemic here last year,” said Ivey.

Public health officials had to quarantine a section of Belen High School to stop its spread among pregnant teenagers, teenage mothers and their infant children enrolled in the GRADs program.

This year, however, Ivey’s seen fewer cases.

In the Los Lunas clinic, Thomas wears a “Whip the Whoop” button. She says outbreaks usually begin after school starts. The persistent hard cough, with its whoop-like inhale, commonly spreads from parent to child, then among children at school.

Ivey said a hard cough that lasts longer than two weeks is considered contagious.

“We make sure the family is treated,” she said, noting the vaccine to prevent pertussis is included in the back-to-school immunizations.

She recommends teachers, parents with small children and anyone who works with children get the free shots.

Other shots for adults include vaccines against influenza, pneumonia and Hepatitis A and B.

Tuberculosis is another infectious disease that won’t go away.

For example, Belen’s clinic treats TB patients who range in age from 20 to 85. Five cases are active, requiring nurses to try to keep the deadly disease under control. For those with latent TB, daily medication is prescribed in hopes of curing it.

“Our borders are open,” begins Thomas, as she discusses how easily infectious diseases like pertussis or TB can spread in New Mexico. “So when someone stands up and says ‘TB’, we pay attention.”

Reproductive services such as pregnancy tests, tubal ligations, vasectomies also are covered by public health. Pregnancy tests are performed in the county’s clinics, but vasectomies are done in Albuquerque; tubal ligations in Santa Fe.

Family planning services are another key focus for the two local clinics.

Anyone 13 or older can get confidential advice, without any parent approval, from either clinic.

“If (they’re) sexually active, we encourage testing,” said Thomas, who added most of her teenage clients learn about public health services by word of mouth among their friends.

“They’re here because they don’t want kids and they’re scared,” Thomas said.

Her Belen counterpart, Ivey, emphasized that all forms of birth control — pills to the Patch, IUDs to diaphragms, for females, and condoms for males as well as abstinence — are up for discussion. Adoption, abortion and keeping the baby are all options during discussions with pregnant females of any age.

“I want to say we’re making a dent,” Ivey replied when asked about the numbers of unwanted pregnancies. “We encourage our clients to use protection.”

When discussing sexually transmitted diseases, Ivey said she has not had anyone test positive for HIV in her four years at the Belen clinic. But she has seen cases of syphilis and chlamydia.

A nurse practitioner from Albuquerque comes to the clinics once a week to give family planning exams, whether it’s the annual exam or a Pap smear exam for early detection of cervical cancer.

Another aspect of public health’s mission in Valencia County is the needle-exchange program. Once a month, a van comes to Los Lunas from Albuquerque and, for three hours, public health nurses exchange clean hypodermic needles for dirty ones from drug users. Belen nurse Shannon Panko alternates the assignment with Los Lunas public health nurse Meghan Parry.

“We give them a ‘sharps container’,” Thomas said, for people to safely dispose of their dirty needles instead of throwing them on the ground or in a trash container or sharing them.

“We encourage (drug users) to get clean,” Thomas said. “But as long as they’re using, we don’t want dirty needles to get in the hands of others, especially children.”

The exchange program is from noon to 3 p.m. the first Friday of the month at Heritage Park. Ivey said the Belen nurses are working with the city’s police department in hopes the van can come to Belen.

One of the most-used services the local clinics offer is WIC, Women, Infants and Children, for pregnant women, mothers of babies 6 months or younger and children up to 5 years old.

Along with WIC is the Families FIRST, a free program that offers medical, social and educational services for Medicaid-eligible pregnant women and children under 3.

Dora Ramos has been with WIC for more than 20 years. Her advocacy for the work is as infectious as her enthusiasm when she discusses one of her main areas of concern — breast feeding.

Within minutes of meeting Ramos, she soon hands over a bright-pink business card that reads “License to Breastfeed.” It quotes the state law that allows working women to breast feed their babies on the job.

Ramos and her “breast-feeding task force” out of the Los Lunas clinic go to hospitals and homes, spreading the word and offering any assistance they can.

Karla Chavez and her staff offer the same services in Belen.

Not only does breast feeding offer the baby the natural milk of its mother, Ramos rattles off a long list of other benefits for both mother and child. They range from preventing breast and uterine cancer, to preventing obesity, lowering allergies in children and improving the mental health of the mother.

WIC also teaches mothers proper nutrition and how to make smarter shopping decisions when buying food for their families. Ramos said part of her job is to make sure some of the smaller markets in Valencia County stock food items approved WIC for women receiving Medicaid benefits.

If the federal government shutdown lasts for any length of time, WIC will be the first program to feel the squeeze.

“We serve about 58,000 New Mexicans through WIC and most of it is (funded by) federal dollars,” said Kenny Vigil, public information officer out of the Santa Fe public health office.

Fortunately, Vigil added, there was a surplus last year in last year’s budget so that money will be used to keep WIC going.

Clinics are located at 617 Becker Ave. in Belen, and 445 Camino del Rey in Los Lunas. They are open from 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. To call for more information or to make an appointment, the numbers are 864-7743 for Belen’s clinic, and for Los Lunas, call 222-0940.