Five Questions with Heather Barr, Public Health Nurse

Heather Barr1. When did you start as a Public Health Nurse with King County? 30-plus years ago. I started out in the Jail as a Registered Nurse in 1984. I met a nurse there (Kathryn Crawford) who asked me what I wanted to do with my career. I told her I liked to work with homeless people, and people with addictions. She said “I have the perfect job for you, I am leaving a position at the tuberculosis clinic running a drug trial for the Centers for Disease Control, most of my patients are alcoholic and homeless, so you would love it!” I called the TB manager, Anne Elarth; she invited me to meet, we chatted a while and she said, “Could you possibly start tomorrow? We can do the paper work later, I need a nurse now.”  That was back in the day when things were a tad bit looser in HR, and also when people still smoked at their desk, if you can imagine that. I said yes, and stayed about six years. I loved that job.  I worked in the old Detox Center for a while, too. Then I worked with Health Care for the Homeless Network (HCHN) as a Public Health Nurse for Parent Child Health, for MOM’s Project, and for the Child Care Health Team. I did a short stint as a nursing supervisor for the Downtown Clinic, and filled in as manager for the Interpreter Program for a while.

We have so appreciated all that you have done for our guests at the Mission. You’ve been instrumental in providing flu shots, TB tests, trainings – all with a gracious, caring, and friendly style. We feel like you have been part of our Mission team, and are so thankful for you. You have been available for questions that we’ve had, and given us advice when there is a lot of sickness at our shelters – all with the health and well-being of homeless men, women and children in mind. Gary Fast, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission

 2. What do you do in your role? My job for the last 20 years has been with Health Care for the Homeless Network. I do a lot of teaching about reducing the risk of communicable diseases at sites that serve people who are homeless, such as shelters and drop-in centers. I wrote Best Practice Guidelines for shelters and for Tent Cities. I get to go out in the community to visit shelters and provide training and support for the staff at many places in Seattle throughout the county. I give a lot of flu shots every winter, with a lot of help from Public Health Reserve Corps and the folks who process all that data. I field questions from the community about homelessness and health, which covers a lot of issues. I also provide technical support to our contracted providers in Health Care for the Homeless, primarily nurses. Recently, I have been called on to provide training about Trauma Informed Care. 

Thank you for the presentation on Trauma Informed Care (TIC) for our Offsite Shelter staff. They really enjoyed the presentation and are already putting the information to use! You do an amazing job at presenting and educating people about TIC. We would like to give you a GREAT BIG THANK YOU! Scott Moorhouse, The Salvation Army

3. Why did you choose nursing as a career? My mother discouraged me from pursuing a degree in Literature, and suggested I find an occupation which would be in demand. “People are always going to be sick and need nurses.” So I followed her advice.  I think there are other more interesting reasons that go back to a John Irving-esque/Charles Dickensien upbringing in rural New England, as well as  having  a strong aversion to  injustice and inequity, a desire to alleviate suffering and  a penchant for rooting for the underdog.  I’ll save that for a book.

4. What is the biggest challenge of your job? The failure of the multiple systems that create or contribute homelessness, and the increasing numbers of people who are homeless is vexing and frustrating. Seeing people from every age group dealing with homelessness is very hard. The paucity of mental health and substance-use treatment is maddening. Persistent inequity and racism is beyond challenging. Being patient with change is challenging for me, and many others, especially those directly impacted by these conditions. Internally, I wish there were more resources to put toward making the Public Health Department truly trauma-informed. I wish everyone who works here had as much support as I have been so fortunate to enjoy. I wish everyone at the Health Department had ample encouragement to have a strong sense of mission and joy in the good work to be done here. I wish every person who worked here was mined for all the knowledge, experience and talent they have, and valued for the unique gifts they bring. We spend a lot of our life at work, and we all should love being here.

5. What do you enjoy most about it? The people I have met, here at work and out in the community. I love the community partnerships I have made. It is such an honor to be trusted by your community. The people who work in shelters and in other agencies that work to help people who are homeless are unbelievably great. The people who are experiencing homelessness have taught me more than anything else, about just everything, including myself. I love the work that my colleagues have been doing toward Equity and Social Justice, and the work my friends and colleagues have done with the ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Collaborative and it is an honor to participate in those efforts. The people on the HCHN Team are a constant source of happiness and support. I have had excellent co-workers and supervisors and leaders over the past 30 years, which goes a long way towards making work a pleasure. I have met and worked with passionate, inspired and brilliant people in Community Health Services, Environmental Health Services, Preparedness and Prevention. There are such fabulous people here, I strongly encourage everyone to bust down the silos, go meet people in other sections and division. I feel we have become much more explicitly intentional in our work, and it’s been exciting see and participate in the evolving consciousness of the Department. I feel like I have grown up here, in a sense, and it has been a real pleasure to work for King County Public Health; sadly, I am leaving my position here in February, for personal reasons. I will miss everyone, and knowing you has been a great joy. Perhaps I will follow the lead of many others, and be lucky enough to come back in a new iteration, maybe after I retire.