Not long after finishing her last School of Public Health class, Jillian Reich, MPH ’12, took a job as an emergency preparedness educator with Boston’s DelValle Institute for Emergency Preparedness, a program of the Boston Public Health Commission and Boston Emergency Medical Services. Reich’s first major assignment was to work a medical tent at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. The events of that day are well known. Less known is the impact it had on those, like Reich, who stayed on the scene after the bombs exploded to help gather information and communicate with families of the injured.
Although she’d always wanted to do emergency public health work, Reich never imagined she’d be so directly “in the thick of things.” Three weeks after the bombings she told members of the SPH class of 2013, “If I had to wake up tomorrow and relive the 15th of April over again, I would. The only thing I would do differently is to find a way to do it better. … That is what sets public health apart from the rest.” Reich spoke to Findings in June about the marathon and its aftermath.
Findings: It’s hard to imagine a more powerful introduction to real-life public health practice than the one you experienced in Boston. How have the events of April 15 changed the way you feel about your profession?
Jillian Reich: It’s deepened my desire to do my job and protect the health and safety of others. Certainly it’s made public health more personal. When I think about what happened, I think about the victims. In the midst of everything, we were recording people’s names and injuries, and then two days later I’m watching CNN, and I see one of the names I’d written down giving an interview. I don’t think a lot of times in public health you get to see the people you’re working for, but I feel so connected to the marathon victims and their families. Even though they have no idea who I am, I feel as if I know each and every one of them. When I walk down the street now and see other people in the city, I think, “That’s why I’m doing this.” If anything, it has made this career—this whole field—much more real to me. I really got the opportunity to see the impact I could have, saving lives.
F: Are there specific lessons you learned at SPH that came into play that day?
JR: In that moment, after the explosion, I really didn’t rely on any specific education or training. I didn’t think about any class—all that goes out the window. What stays is your character. And I think that really is what Michigan helped shape. That’s something I would want fellow public health professionals and students to think about as they go through their careers—character-building. All the small things, the teamwork skills you use in group projects and presentations, the leadership skills you learn—again, through work on a group project or working with an organization—the communication skills, all the things you gain from Michigan through your classes, your program, your extracurricular activities. Those are the things that build your character, and in a time of crisis, that’s what you rely on.
F: What advice might you give to someone who tells you she’s interested in public health but not sure she’s ready to commit?
JR: One of my mentors told me that if you’re willing to put your heart, soul, time, and effort into helping individuals who may never know your name or face, then the public health community would be lucky to have you. That’s what I would say.
For more on the DelValle Institute for Emergency Preparedness, or to access an online emergency-preparedness Knowledge Base, visit the DelValle Institute for Emergency Preparedness website.
The Finish Line
Kevin Frick’s long-standing dream of running the Boston Marathon began to come true in the fall of 2012, when he learned he’d qualified for the 2013 race. A resident of Baltimore, Maryland, where he is a professor and vice dean for education at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School (and a former faculty member at the Bloomberg School of Public Health), Frick, PhD ’96, went to Boston six months later for the run of his life. He began the race at 10:05 on the morning of April 15 and crossed the finish line at 1:21 p.m., exultant at having completed the course in just over three hours. At 2:49 p.m., Frick was on the subway, heading back to his hotel to celebrate, when he learned that two bombs had gone off at the finish line, injuring scores of bystanders and killing three—among them a boy the same age as Frick’s son. Three days later, desperate to glean some meaning from the chaos and terror of that day, Frick began drafting a series of essays about the marathon—26 in all, one for each mile. Below, an excerpt from “Mile 24—Brookline”:
“Finish lines are usually black and white. I am either on one side of the finish line or the other. I know exactly where it is. I know whether the tape has been broken or not, and whether I have any chance of being first. … When I crossed the finish line in Boston, I thought it would be black and white. I was not finished, and then I was. But the attackers’ actions led to a much different outcome.
I can appreciate so much better how people who have suffered a tragic loss talk about things like how finding the accused and achieving a conviction make them feel better but don’t necessarily bring closure. When we finally get all the details of the investigation, when we finally understand—as best we ever will—the motivation of the brothers, when we finally have some legal outcome to the case, then I will feel like I have come very close to the finish line. But deep inside somewhere, the pain and anger and helplessness that I felt that first afternoon will always be there. And if there is a black and white, I am not sure that I will ever cross the finish line and achieve complete closure on this one. The best I can hope for is to be within sight of the finish line, with no one moving the line ever again. I’m not sure when I will be there.”