A Desire to Heal: One Nurse Pursues Public Health during a Pandemic

Kwame McGlory, MPH student

Kwame McGlory

Master’s Student, Online Population and Health Sciences Degree Program, Public Health Registered Nurse in the Tuberculosis Elimination Program at the Harris County Public Health Department

Kwame McGlory jokes that he became a nurse so he could wear sneakers and scrubs all day. Comfortable clothing aside, he's serious about his desire to help people and improve health care delivery. He traded in his scrubs recently, and following a stint as a contact tracer, he's now working for the Harris County Public Health Department's Tuberculosis Elimination Program. Tuberculosis remains the deadliest infectious disease in the world, killing more than 1.5 million people each year. 

What led you into health care and becoming a nurse? Why pursue an MPH now?

I think all nurses have that desire to heal. There's just something innate in us that makes us want to take those opportunities to help people, especially people that are sick or injured, and for me, definitely that's what it was.

What brings me now into the public health domain is that I came to understand the limits of what a bedside nurse can do. Although I love having that personal interaction with patients, I'm only helping one person at a time. With public health, you can help so many more people than you can moving from bedside to bedside.

We've known for years that simply having access to medical systems can improve health. But the way our system is set up right now, many people are shut out of the system.

Which areas of public health are you interested in most? Have you had a favorite course or subject in the MPH program so far? 

It's kind of hard to single one course out as a favorite, every class has been amazing. I love being able to go to the Zoom sessions and connect with people all over the country who have different viewpoints and expertise than me. It really is amazing. I have enjoyed the policy classes, and the environmental health classes, and one where we discussed developmental origins of health. What I especially like is the way that the courses build on each other.

There are so many things to do in public health and so many potential paths. You can go into legislative policy, environmental health, child nutrition, maternal health, to name just a few. My classes have been amazing.

Right now, I'm most interested in health policy and legislation around health. I actually have a goal to become a US Senator. I want to protect specific rights for Americans including healthcare. 

We've known for years that simply having access to medical systems can improve health. But the way our system is set up right now, many people are shut out of the system. In my opinion, one thing we need now is universal health care, which would be the best benefit to public health right now. 

Can you tell us more about what you envision for your political future?

There are always a bunch of doctors in Congress, which is great. But to me, the people doing most of the work in health care are nurses. My experience as a nurse is something I would love to bring to Washington.

The type of personality needed in Washington is that of a nurse, someone able to unite and bring things together. I think back on my work in the hospital, especially in a burn ICU. That’s the kind of go-get-’em spirit that will be valuable.

Nursing is always hectic: from the administrative work to maintaining personal care and attention to healing patients, there is always something to do. You need to be patient, proactive, and consistent. My nursing background is ideal for the details of political work. 

You recently changed from ICU nursing to contact tracing in a health department. How did that career change impact your view of public health?

In my role as a contact tracer, I was able to talk to people about how the COVID-19 disease is actually spreading across the community. It's just spreading in so many different ways, and that's something so important to point out as we look at factors around demographics—who's getting affected and who's not. More and more it’s highlighting for me the impacts of the social determinants of health that we’re studying in all of our courses. There's a lot that we need to do and, again, it needs to start with policy and getting people access to healthcare. 

I think one of the most important things that I take from this situation is the mis-information. I’ve talked to so many people, and as a nurse, I really feel that's very important to make that personal connection with people and just start talking. One of the most important things that we can do as a country is simply wear your face mask, but there are those who are arguing against that. So we have to be open to having the conversations, if you are, you can bring out things that people just didn't know yet.

I was quarantining in a downstairs bedroom. Many people in the medical field were doing the same to keep their families safe. But that took a big toll on my family. 

The pandemic has affected many aspects of many lives. What impact has COVID had on you?

Looking back, the pandemic was one of the reasons that caused me to step away from bedside nursing a little earlier than I’d planned to. There are some underlying health issues in my family, including my wife's psoriatic arthritis, which requires immuno-suppressants. And I have a son with pretty bad asthma. Working in health care, there was a risk in bringing the disease home.  

A couple of weeks before I had decided to leave my nursing role, I was quarantining in a downstairs bedroom. Many people in the medical field were doing the same to keep their families safe. But that took a big toll on my family. 

I still have an itch to be in nursing. I'm just sitting at a desk now and I'm not used to doing that. I’m more used to taking action.

Returning to my family, we're all outdoors people so one of the things that we started to do during COVID is holding what we called a “Sunday McGlory Sport Day.” One week we play football, one week basketball or baseball, and sort of mix it up and just go get some fresh air and get everybody out of that cabin fever mode. Right now especially, we have to try to make that time to be together.

How has your family adjusted to you being in grad school on top of everything else?

Unfortunately for them, I was born one of those people who needs absolute silence to study and to read. My household is not very quiet, but everyone has helped me out by just being quiet when they know that I’m studying. 

I absolutely have family support. You’ve got to have that and mine are great. I get high fives when I'm done with a class, they like to see me get good grades on things, and they always promise they’re going to help me with my homework—although, I’ll take this time to remind them of those promises!

But going back to school really hasn't been too stressful. I enjoy writing—  we have a good amount of written work, whether discussion prompts or papers, and that is great. It's genuinely been fun for me to write about all of these different topics and come up with different ideas and ways toward solving them.

What are you looking forward to after you graduate?

I'm really just working on getting it finished right now. When it's all said and done, I think this education will open up so many options for me and so I’ll want to take the time to evaluate all those options. But right now, I'm really enjoying working at the Harris County Public Health Department, and there's plenty of other jobs for nurses to make a difference right now, so we’ll see what comes, I tend to go by the seat of my pants, maybe I’ll write a book.