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‘Sometimes in tragedy, you find your life’s purpose’: My journey into public health | COMMENTARY

National Public Health Week was April 5 to April 11. This is the last in a series of articles about public health from the Harford County Health Department that will appear in The Aegis on Wednesdays in April.

My journey to public health always begins with, “Megan was my niece.” Megan’s life story is short, but important and impactful. She came into this world on May 7, 1995, as quietly as she left it on Nov. 25, 1996. She was a beautiful, petite, elegant, and fragile baby. Concerns arose quickly. Assessing her sudden eye movement and slow physical development, specialists diagnosed her with a rare genetic disorder, and we were told that her life expectancy would be two to three years. Doctors anticipated that Megan would have a poor quality of life. That moment shattered many dreams.

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Soon after the devastating news, I looked at Megan long and hard and this is what I saw — a special little short term gift. This beautiful baby was living the only life she knew, so she was happy. She would never sit up, crawl, walk or talk. She could barely see anything around her but she felt the love of family and that was all she needed to make her giddy about this short little life she had been given. So I determined then and there that Megan would not have a poor quality of life at all, she would have one of the best.

Life moved forward as it always does. My sister and I would take Megan out as if all was well. My daughter Lindley, age 8 at the time, would play the card game “War” with her. She would carefully stash Megan’s cards in the pocket of her little overalls, turn one of her cards, turn one of her own, and then announce at the end of every game, “Megan won!” My son Matt, then 11, was much more introspective and quiet with Megan, until Lindley would do a high-pitched barking noise which set Megan into a belly laugh, and it would crack Matt up. We were thrilled with Megan’s ability to laugh and her laughter was infectious. What other choice did we have but to carry on? We lived each day with appreciation that Megan came into our lives with a purpose and it was up to us to discover that purpose.

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In the fall of 1996, Megan, 18 months old, came down with a cold and we knew in our hearts she wouldn’t make it to even the lower end of her life expectancy. She was too fragile. Her cold quickly developed into pneumonia and she was hospitalized at Mount Washington Children’s Hospital. She and her little roommate, a substance exposed newborn whom I called Baby Girl, existed in complete contrast. Not a peep from Megan, too weak to even cry; horrifying shrills from Baby Girl, in pain from withdrawal. I often wonder what happened to Baby Girl because, she too, made an important impression on my life.

After Megan was stabilized, she was sent home on hospice to the comfort of her own home. During this period of time, my sister was pregnant with her second child and due any day. I am uncertain how she faced all of this. That Friday she went into labor. I went over and stayed at her house with Megan and the hospice nurse. So on one hand I was waiting to hear about the birth of my sister’s second child, while on the other the hospice nurse was telling me it was time for Megan’s death.

A couple of hours later, I received the call that my sister’s son, Riley, was born, and miraculously, but not without issues, Megan made it through the night. On Saturday, my sister was told she had to stay another night in the hospital and Megan mustered up the strength to make it through yet another night. On Sunday morning, after our desperate plea to the hospital, my sister was released and fulfilled her wish of capturing a picture of Megan and Riley together. At 5 a.m. the next morning, Megan gently passed away. In true Megan style, she held on tight and waited for her mommy to get home.

In those three short days, my family went on the most bittersweet ride imaginable — Riley’s birth and Megan’s death. I’m not sure how we survived but this remarkable experience led me on my own journey to public health.

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Before Megan was born, I was preparing to go back to work after staying home with my kids for a few years. After Megan’s death, my career choice became clear, I would work with vulnerable children. I began that career at a Title I elementary school in the county working with at-risk children. That led to a job at the Harford County Health Department running five Title I School Based Health Centers. Within four years, I had the opportunity to plan, develop, and initiate Harford County’s first public health pediatric dental clinic for children and pregnant women on medical assistance. Four years after that I moved to the Director of Administration position, under my long time mentors and friends, Susan Kelly and Dr. Russell Moy, where I learned all aspects of health department operations. And then five years after that, when Susan retired, I became Deputy Health Officer, and worked side by side with Dr. Moy, where I was able to return to my true purpose, public health programming.

Along with Dr. Moy and a talented team, we had a special focus on programs for children and moms, including MEGAN’s (Meaningful Environment to Gather And Nurture) Place, which is a safe place program for at-risk pregnant and post-partum women and their children. As you can see by the name, this program is my secret tribute to Megan, and Baby Girl. This, among other projects, has led to the health department’s current initiative, the soon to be 1 N. Main Family Health Center in Bel Air, which will include the WIC program, the Maryland’s Children Health Program, a second dental clinic, women’s wellness services, and youth and adolescent mental health services, all in one setting. A care coordinator, also based there, will assure underserved families are connected to the services they need.

Then along came COVID-19. In my opinion, the health department has commanded respect over the last year for its incredible response to the many phases of COVID. I have undying admiration for the staff, not just for how they have gracefully carried themselves throughout the biggest public health crisis of our time, but for their continued commitment to their programs and dedication to our community. I am proud to be part of the Harford County Health Department. It’s where I discovered the purpose that Megan inspired me to find.

So, just as I began my story, I will end with the same, “Megan was my niece.” I think about and miss her every single day. Her exquisite story serves as a guiding force in my life and reminds me that everyone has a tragic story. Make your story important and meaningful, shout it out at the top of your lungs for the pure and simple goal of helping others. And if you’re lucky, sometimes in tragedy, you find your life’s purpose.

Marcy Austin is the deputy health officer for the Harford County Health Department.

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