Larry LaRue: Public health nurses happy to 'make a difference' in lives

Staff WriterApril 7, 2014 

Gini Gobeske’s career path may have been created before she was, laid out on the day her parents met.

“They met at the Los Angeles Health Department,” Gobeske said. “My dad was an environmental specialist, my mother a student nurse, and when he saw her he said, ‘That’s someone I have to get to know.’

“They were together more than 60 years.”

Today, Gobeske is a nurse. More specifically, she’s a public health nurse consultant for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. After spending years working at hospitals, private practices and schools, she came to public health.

This puts her in regular contact with her former instructor, Janet Primomo, an associate professor of nursing and health care at the University of Washington Tacoma.

“Gini goes to schools, day cares, provider offices, and talks about asthma, immunizations, and links up with school nurses throughout the county,” Primomo said. “My students work in partnership with the health department.”

Doing what?

“Students helped assess what school nurses knew about wood smoke, about third-hand smoke, which stays on backpacks and coats and is harmful to kids,” Primomo said.

“With maternal child health, our students worked with the health department for a couple of years, researching the high proportion of poor pregnancy outcomes in four of eight County Council districts.”

There are 21 nurses on staff with the health department. Some, like Gobeske, specialize in communicable diseases — from measles to sexually transmitted diseases.

Others, like Janet Peterson, are part of the Nurse-Family Partnership. Working with first-time mothers, most often low-income teenage girls, Peterson does home visits to talk about everything from prenatal health to breast-feeding and day care programs.

“We work with the mother, then the mother and child for 21/2 years, and we’ll visit a client 50 times,” Peterson said. “It stops when the child is 24 months old. Our goals are to have a healthy child, help the mother graduate from high school and prevent a second pregnancy within two years.”

Young nurses have plenty of options after getting their degrees. Teacher Primomo and nurses Peterson and Gobeske urge them to take a long look at public health, though not for the money they would earn.

“If I was a hospital nurse, I’d be making $5 an hour more than I am today. You do make a choice when you work in public health,” Peterson said. “I get a lot of fulfillment from my job, a lot of flexibility. I think I have the best job in the world.

“I don’t work weekends, I don’t work graveyard shifts and my office is my bag. I take it with me to clients’ homes.”

This week is National Public Health Week, and on Wednesday at UWT, there will be a health department-sponsored discussion and a showing of the video, “We Are Public Health.”

Primomo has long told her students about the responsibilities and opportunities that distinguish the public health field.

“We have about 100 students a year (at UWT), and this year my students are working with the health department on the study of homelessness and pregnant women,” she said.

“What the information shows is that about 12 babies a month are born to homeless mothers in Pierce County, and the long-term consequences are really inexcusable — from learning disabilities to stress passed on from the mother to the baby.”

Peterson’s job, for most of the last 19 years, has been to deal one-on-one with young mothers-to-be.

“A lot of these young women have no family support,” she said. “We may be the most important resource in their life; functional families are unusual for these young women.

“We help them with transportation needs, basic needs like baby clothes. We become almost part of the family, and hold them responsible for their goals.”

And when they reach their goals?

“When someone graduates from high school, that’s an accomplishment we celebrate,” she said.

Nursing, Peterson said, is one of the few professions today that always seems to be hiring.

“If I lost my job today, I could probably have another one tonight,” Peterson said.

Why has she stayed so long in one place, one job?

“I feel like I make a difference.”


What: Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department presentation and video.

Where: University of Washington Tacoma, Cherry Parkes Building, Room 106.

When: Wednesday, 4:30-6 p.m.

Cost: Free.

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638

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