Meet a Health Hero: Patty Gerrity
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Name: Patty Gerrity
Occupation: Professor and associate dean for community programs at Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professions and director of Stephen and Sandra Sheller 11th Street Family Health Services of Drexel University, a health center in North Philly
Who or what motivates you to be healthy?
As the director of the Stephen and Sandra Sheller 11th St Family Health Services Center of Drexel University, I have an intrinsic motivation to be healthy. The center’s staff and patients reinforce this motivation, as we become informed and active partners in the pursuit of health. The staff models the behavior they hope to see in the patients, from what they eat for lunch to joining in fitness and yoga classes. They understand that their work is about people’s lives and everyday behavior not simply an illness or diagnosis. They recognize the mind-body connection to health and not only encourage patients, but also each other to be healthy. Being part of a connected and motivated community helps me to join in the activities and serve as a role model.
Describe a health or fitness related turning point in your life.
The turning point in my quest for health and quality care came when I became aware of the effects of trauma and toxic stress of childhood on health. The adverse effects of trauma, especially trauma experienced as a child, have long been recognized as negatively affecting emotional well-being, increasing the likelihood of drug and alcohol use and abuse; school truancy and poor learning habits; and increasing the incidences of depression and anxiety. Recently, researchers have been able to demonstrate a direct link between trauma and physical well-being. Individuals who experience trauma are more likely to develop high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiac disease and other chronic ailments. Yet, we had not incorporated this into our model of care. The health center is now a trauma-informed organization in which all staff is aware of the ways in which trauma impacts functioning and health, and specific programs are in place to address the patient’s past experiences and incorporate them into a plan of care.
Understanding trauma also means recognizing that our personal traumatic experiences or the stress associated with working in human services may impact our emotional and physical well-being as well as our work success and satisfaction. This approach has a significant cumulative effect as it serves to not only promote the health of our patients, but also our staff and community.
What “policy” would you institute to make Greater Philadelphia a healthier region?
I would develop a “trauma-informed” city in which all sectors recognize that trauma is a root cause of our public health crisis. This concept is sweeping through the mental health and social service communities, but has received little public attention from a systems perspective. Many of the issues facing our city — including homelessness, domestic violence and substance abuse — stem from exposure to violence. Trauma is universal. It can impact any person regardless of age, culture, gender or class. It does not discriminate. When an individual experiences a situation that overwhelms his or her ability to cope, the event is said to be traumatic. Everyone pays the price when a community produces multi-generations of people with untreated trauma by an increase in crime, loss of wages, and threat to the stability of the family.
The development of a trauma-informed city requires a shift in thinking and a long-term commitment on behalf of first responders, community organizations, schools, law enforcement, service providers, etc. These sectors would benefit from a basic understanding of trauma and how it impacts people’s lives. As individuals become better informed about trauma, trauma-informed services will likely increase leading to a healthier city.
What’s the most important part of your health or fitness regimen?
It is important for me to be both mindful and grateful and see health as a creative act. It is helpful to reframe situations in order to be grateful for what I have and bring enjoyment to pursuing health. Health promotion is a creative act that provides opportunities for the soul to be fed, the mind to flourish, and the body to be nourished. This is reinforced and enhanced by being part of the 11th Street Center community where these values and attitudes are reinforced for both staff and patients.
What is your number one piece of health-related advice?
Heal the soul and the body will follow.
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