Frontier Nursing University (FNU) alumni and former Peace Corps member Monica Heltz has long fostered a passion for public health, working in the field for over two decades. Last year, Heltz decided to further her passion by earning her Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) from FNU.
“At the time, I wasn’t sure where it would take me. I just wanted to do more,” Heltz said. “It’s been a wild ride, but somehow, my dream job popped up right in my backyard.”
Shortly after finishing her degree, Heltz’s home city announced that it would be building a health department. In the face of COVID-19, Fishers, Ind., was choosing to branch off from the county-regulated system in order to expand services to their community.
When Heltz heard the news, she reached out, hoping for a shot at a leadership role within the department. That call paid off. In May of 2020, Heltz became Fishers’ Public Health Director.
“When I came out of the Peace Corps, I worked at a job that dealt with environmental and public health issues. As I began to learn more about public health, my eyes were opened to a whole world of new jobs that fascinated me,” Heltz said. “Since that time, local public health has been my passion, and I am so fortunate that this opportunity found me.”
Starting a health department takes an enormous amount of resources and moving parts. Starting one during a pandemic only increased those needs. Since COVID-19 spurred the decision to create the health department, when Heltz onboarded, the city was already doing a great job of hosting and regulating testing sites. Heltz’s first job in her new role was to look at non-pandemic health concerns, establish priorities and start knocking out necessary projects.
Now, a year into the program, Heltz has completed most “have-to-do” items and can focus on other things, like rolling out a childhood vaccine clinic. She is incredibly excited for next year when the department is developed enough to focus on even more significant initiatives.
“We want to further integrate the health department into all of our city programs as a way to give our citizens the best opportunities to take proactive health measures,” Heltz said.
According to Heltz, Fishers’ department is already better integrated with the community than many health departments.
“For example, one of our major vaccination sites is an old warehouse. To get it running, we needed to team with public works, the fire department and local health care workers. In many cities, the health department feels like it’s on an island – in Fishers though, we are already able to work well with the greater community,” Heltz said.
“The great thing about starting a health department during a pandemic is that it’s easy for the public to understand who we are and why we’re here,” Heltz said. “However, it’s also been extremely disheartening that public health has become a political issue. My team and I have been pouring our hearts into making our community as safe and healthy as possible. Yet, we have often been criticized for making educated, scientific choices.”
However, Heltz said on the more difficult days, she and her team remind themselves that most of their community does agree with their choices, that it is only a small number of passionate people choosing to be vocal.
The numbers show that Heltz’s community, and the rest of the state, do stand with her. Fishers’ early action on COVID-19 ended up leading the state in policy and statistics, including holding the state’s highest vaccination rate as of late May.
Heltz’s health department was one of the first to have an online dashboard accessible to the public, providing up-to-date data on case rates, vaccinations and local policies. They could do this because Heltz pushed for one of the department’s first hires to be an epidemiologist.
“I knew if we wanted to show our credibility and make the best decisions for our community, we needed someone like this on our team,” Heltz said.
Due to the knowledge and experience within the Fishers health department, they were also the first in Indiana to offer school guidelines, which ended up paving the way for state guidelines.
“It was so cool to find solutions that fit our community and see those choices validated on a larger scale,” Heltz said. “It helped us to stay on track and build confidence in our mission.”
According to Heltz, the year has been one of the most exciting and challenging years of her life, but she couldn’t be happier with her role.
“This isn’t a job that comes around every day, and it’s one that many people probably wouldn’t want, but it is the perfect role for me,” Heltz said. “I chose to earn my DNP at FNU because I loved FNU’s dedication to making a difference and caring for underserved populations. I find a very similar mission within public health. We look for the best outcomes and try our hardest to bring positive change to our communities. I am proud of my roles as both Fisher County Public Health Director and FNU alumni.”