The COVID-19 pandemic has brought welcome attention to the heroic efforts of health care professionals, including thousands of Gannon University alumni.
We’ve witnessed many of them serving on the frontlines as physicians and nurses, but the pandemic has also shed light on the essential work being done by and urgent need for professionals in other vital disciplines like public health and respiratory care.
Mary Reitinger, RRT, CPFT ’89AS, ’91, assistant professor and chair of the respiratory care program at Gannon.
“I don’t think public health was on a lot of people’s radar, but the pandemic has opened everyone’s eyes to what we need to do to be better,” said Mary Jean Taylor, Ph.D., who teaches in Gannon’s public health program.
“I think it is critically important that our next generation of health care professionals have a background in public health. The American Public Health Association has said that we need 100,000 new public health professionals. My generation can only go so far, and we need to go beyond that,” Taylor said.
One of the young professionals who has answered the call is Lauren Carson ’18, ’20MHA. Carson is an epidemiological investigator at the Erie County Department of Health.
Lauren Carson ’18, ’20MHA, epidemiological investigator at the Erie County Department of Health
Carson began this work in March 2020, just days before the declaration of the pandemic. Immediately, she was thrust into a role she could not have anticipated – designing a system for tracking and contact tracing COVID-19 cases countywide.
“I can remember in detail the first 20 people in Erie who got it: where they got it, how they got it. I still have the obituaries on my desk. I never met them, never talked to them, but I feel like I knew them,” Carson said.
“I can remember in detail the first 20 people in Erie who got (COVID-19) ... I still have the obituaries on my desk. I never met them, never talked to them, but I feel like I knew them.” - Lauren Carson
Carson came to Gannon as a pre-medicine major, but quickly changed direction after she realized her desire to focus more on preventative health measures. Her adviser suggested that Carson look into the newly established public health program.
“I hadn’t even heard about public health, but I thought ‘wow, this is everything that I’m interested in,’” Carson said.
Emma Oas ’21, a graduate of Gannon's public health program.
Emma Oas followed a similar path to public health. She arrived at Gannon as undeclared but learned about the public health program from her adviser, Sarah Ewing, Ph.D., now the dean of the Morosky College of Health Professions and Sciences.
“When I switched to public health, I found all these different avenues that I could explore,” Oas said. “I knew I wanted to communicate with communities about health needs and disparities in health care delivery.”
Her opportunity to do just that came with an internship with Beacon Communities, which operates three senior living facilities in Erie.
Working with Parris Baker ’92, Ph.D., MSSA, director and assistant professor of the social work, mortuary science and gerontology programs, Oas designed an innovative program to assess and respond to the social isolation of residents in two Beacon properties. Modeled on Gannon’s Alternative Break Service Trips and Transforming Residents Abroad Via Engaged Learning, or T.R.A.V.E.L., programs, Oas paired senior residents with Gannon students who planned to travel abroad, essentially a Transforming Erie Residents Via Engaged Learning opportunity.
The pandemic that created the need for Oas’s program ultimately scuttled its implementation, but Oas mapped out a template for the program to follow when travel is again permitted.
Oas hopes to take what she has learned to a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer and eventually to the Peace Corps.
“My ultimate goal is to work in global health,” Oas said. “My stepping stones are to start in Erie, to expand that to the U.S. and eventually globally, to push myself out of my comfort zone.”
Both Oas and Carson were in the initial cohorts of the new public health program. Today, Carson is part of another cohort – in Gannon’s organizational learning and leadership doctoral program. Could teaching be in Lauren Carson’s future? “I’d love it,” she said.
The path from Gannon student to practitioner to teacher is one that Mary Reitinger, RRT, CPFT ’89AS, ’91 has traveled. Reitinger is assistant professor and chair of Gannon’s respiratory care program since last November, bringing 33 years of experiences as a respiratory therapist.
It was a remarkably varied career. Reitinger has practiced in the areas of trauma care and pulmonary function, sleep disorders and reflated the lungs of pediatric patients that were deflated in order to perform delicate orthopedic procedures.
“It’s a very exciting field,” Reitinger said. “Respiratory therapists don’t do the same thing every day. One day, you might be in the ER, the next in intensive care or the neonatal unit. You never know what you’re going to need to do, and that’s why I look for students with initiative and leadership. You can’t be shy in this field.”
Reitinger is now using her experiences to prepare Gannon students for similar, meaningful career paths in diagnosing, treating and preventing respiratory illnesses in patients across settings.
Students entering the career field will be met with an abundance of job opportunities – many of which have been created with the expansion of intensive care units to accommodate patients with COVID-19.
Many scientists now predict that the virus will be with us for a long time – perhaps as a seasonal affliction, like the flu.
But keeping this deadly virus in check and preventing the kind of mass health crisis from which we only now seem to be emerging will require the commitment of thousands of medical professionals, the heroes of the future. You will find them in the classrooms and laboratories of the Morosky College of Health Professions and Sciences today.