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Role as 'servant leader' gave Renville County Public Health director a voice for the vulnerable

Jill Bruns maintains a philosophy of the "servant leader" in her role as director of public health in Renville County. Her 37-year career as the department's leader has taken her places she would never have expected, but all for the good as a voice for those most vulnerable.

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A sense of humor, ready smile and upbeat attitude have characterized Jill Bruns in her role as director of public health in Renville County. She is retiring after 37 years as director. She is shown June 10, 2021, at the county courthouse. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune
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OLIVIA — A career in public health has taken Jill Bruns to places where few others go.

Not all of them pleasant, she admits. She has enough war stories to fill a book.

“This job has never been boring,” said Bruns, who is retiring at the end of this month as the director of Renville County Public Health . “You never know what is going to be knocking on my door any morning.”

She has been responding to the knocks on the doors and phone calls of all sorts in Renville County for 37 years. She had six years of experience with Sibley County public health and one year prior with the Arlington Municipal Hospital before she started.

Her predecessor in Renville County, Jean Kolbe, began her career in 1951 administering Mantoux tests in the fight against tuberculosis.

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When Bruns began her duties in 1984, the department’s efforts were expanding, but the focus remained on serving the most vulnerable: The young, the elderly and the poor.

The Women, Infant and Children nutrition program began in 1985 as did the county’s first hospice program.

During the 1980s, as many as 6,000 migrant workers and family members arrived in the county each growing season.

“Migrant housing was often very substandard,” said Bruns. It was her department’s responsibility to protect the health and safety of the families.

She grew up on a dairy farm near Hector . It gave her a work ethic that has helped her through many challenges, she said.

Growing up, Bruns was split between possible careers in nursing or the extension service. Family and community always meant a lot to her, she said.

A public health rotation as part of her nursing training showed her that public health was where she belonged.

She appreciated its blending of science and nursing.

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“But also, the focus on equity in the community,” she said of public health. “Having a voice for those who maybe don’t have a voice.”

Her career has taught her that poverty is often the biggest determinant of an individual’s health. It coincides with education, employment, health insurance and housing. These are important factors in our physical and mental well-being, she said.

Public health workers continue to provide one-on-one care, whether it’s through home visits to the elderly or services to expectant mothers.

Increasingly, the focus today is on improving health for entire subsets of the population, whether it's expectant mothers, children in low-income households, or those struggling with depression and anxiety.

“We care about the individual but look at the herd,” said Bruns. “We really look at the ‘herd’ health: What can we do to improve overall health."

As an example, she pointed to the smoking cessation classes once offered by public health. Today, it devotes more effort to promoting the laws and programs that keep young people from a nicotine addiction in the first place.

She said public health has gotten smarter and more efficient in how it serves the public. Bruns has played a big role in that. She served as a founding member of regional ventures aimed at providing improved and more cost-effective service; from Prime West Health, which provides affordable health plans to people in 24 counties; to Pact for Families, a five-county program providing mental health care to those in need.

Retirement will give Bruns and her husband of 43 years, Steve, more time to travel and enjoy family. Bruns said she just might use the time to put to paper some of the stories about where public health has taken her.

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Her stories could include many trips to so-called garbage houses. She can describe opening refrigerators and stepping back as gobs of slime oozed out. She’s been in homes so overwhelmed with animals and their wastes that the ammonia had corroded electrical outlets.

Her work also put her in the pits holding the wastes from a million chickens, where she saw waves of maggots as if on an ocean. She’s also dealt with the health issues of people sickened by hydrogen sulfide emissions from open lagoons holding millions of gallons of hog wastes.

Bruns was planning to retire from all of the challenges just over a year ago, but put those plans on hold. She said she could not leave her duties to the public or staff at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She’s always taken the position that public health is about being the “servant leader,” she said.

The opportunity to serve people continues to be the motivation for those who make public health their careers, said Bruns.

And in that respect, Bruns said she feels good about leaving. She said the department’s staff are very committed to serving the public, and they will be well led by her successor, Sara Benson.

But until July 1, Bruns continues to respond to the calls and knocks on the door for help. “This morning two really strange calls came in. I can’t make this up,” she said during a recent interview. “I am going to go out at 100 per. No coasting out of here.”

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