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Stories from the Field: Podcast on public health nursing launched with U of T support

Susan Blue and Maureen Cava, both retired public health nurses, created the Stories from the Field podcast to shine a light on the important role public health nursing plays in the health-care system.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the field of public health into the spotlight. Yet nurses, who often work most closely with the community, have somehow remained largely in the background.

It’s an oversight Susan Blue, an alumna of the University of Toronto’s Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, and Maureen Cava, who was cross-appointed to the faculty and taught community health nursing, are hoping to rectify.

Both retired public health nurses, the pair decided to create a podcast called Stories from the Field to amplify nursing voices and help students and the wider public learn more about what public health nurses do – perhaps even consider it as a career. 

Stories from the Field’s six episodes take listeners on a journey across Ontario as co-hosts Blue and Cava speak with public health nurses about everything from harm reduction and the opioid crisis to nursing leadership and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve worked in public health for almost 40 years, and I still get asked what hospital I work in,” says Cava, who is also the former president of the Ontario Association of Public Health Nursing Leaders. 

“We are passionate about public health and committed to ensuring the public, as well as other nurses, know what public health nursing means.”

“As a public health nurse, you are taking a preventative approach to the health and wellbeing of the community at large, as well as individuals,” adds Blue, “It’s why we hope to see more nurses in the field.”

The podcast is proudly sponsored by the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing’s Verna Huffman Splane Fund, an endowed award named after Verna Splane, a public health nurse who graduated from U of T in 1939 and enjoyed an illustrious career in nursing and health care.

“Maureen and Susan have captured the essence of what makes public health nursing essential and have shone a much-needed light on the work of our public health nurses,” says Linda Johnston, dean of the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing. “This podcast will be an important tool for future nurses to see the breadth of expertise that this particular field of nursing has to offer.”

Writer Rebecca Biason recently spoke with Blue and Cava about the importance of giving nurses a voice and what they are hoping the podcast’s listeners will learn.


What is the role of the public health nurse?

Blue: To me, public health nursing means putting energy and resources into disease prevention instead of waiting until people get sick to spring into action. As a public health nurse, that means reaching the entire population to maintain and improve people’s health and quality of life.

The community is our client and that’s something I’m very passionate about. Keeping people out of hospitals can make a real difference in their health.

Cava: Public health nurses play a significant role in policy development – things like food security, basic income, housing and other social determinants of health. That kind of preventative upstream approach is what we focus on to ensure people are healthy, physically fit, have harm reduction strategies and have the resources they need so they don’t end up in emergency rooms or hospitalized for things that are preventable.

It makes sense to put money into prevention, but there has been a chronic lack of funding since we’ve been in the field. Public health gets a small piece of the pie to do an inordinate amount of work in preventing people from getting sick. It is why we are so committed to our work, as we see the value in public health nursing as an investment in the future of society.

What led to the creation of Stories from the Field?

Cava: Public health nursing is not well understood – by nurses, by politicians, by the public. When I was the president of the Ontario public health nursing leaders association, it was one of my goals to ensure people knew about what public health nurses do and the impact they have.

When I worked at Toronto Public Health, many of the student nurses I encountered had no idea about the scope and breadth of all that is involved as a public health nurse. It was such an eye-opening experience for them, as I hope this podcast will be for other nursing students.

Blue: Maureen and I met in 1990 working for the former North York Public Health Department (now Toronto Public Health). So, having known each for other for 30 years, it wasn’t a huge leap to consider embarking on this project together. We both share a drive to ensure public health nursing is understood and valued as a key part of the health care sector and wanting public health nursing to be brought to the forefront.

What were some of the unforeseen challenges in creating the podcast?

Blue: Well, we are novice podcast hosts. We had listened to a few podcasts, but certainly hadn’t developed one. Maureen came across a podcast camp offered through Ryerson University, and we thought it would be a good way to get some knowledge under our belts.

Cava: Following that camp, we thought, “Oh, for sure we could do this!” But it turns out we were a bit naive about the whole process. We had some initial challenges getting funding for the podcast, but eventually after speaking with Dean Johnston of the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, her support and that of the Verna Huffman Splane fund helped get our project off the ground.

Blue: COVID threw a wrench into everything. We thought we would be recording in a studio together, but soon we were met with a steep learning curve of having to set-up equipment and software on our own. We were grateful to the producers at Vocal Fry Studios for assisting us along the way, but it was very tough in the beginning.

Cava: COVID also meant that many of our nursing colleagues who we planned to have as guests were working full tilt, and that took precedence over everything. We were lucky to be able to eventually meet and interview many experienced public health nurses to share their stories. It just goes to show how involved public health nurses are across the health-care spectrum.

Do you have a favourite episode?

Cava: For me, “Episode Three: Frontline in a Pandemic” stands out. It tells a captivating story about the early stages of the pandemic and the work nurses do behind the scenes to get those shots into arms. It shines a light on the role they had across Ontario in a way that hasn’t really been shown throughout the pandemic. Public health nurses were front and centre since the beginning of the pandemic and are continuing to lead in their roles as things are evolving.

Blue: “Episode Two: Harm Reduction Approaches to Opioid Use” is a favourite. Our guest Rhonda Lovell spoke from a personal perspective about being a young mum and how her interactions with public health nurses during that time in her life motivated her to consider this field of practice and move into public health nursing. She shared such great insights and knowledge.

What are you hoping students and the public will take away from this podcast?

Cava: It goes back to why we started the podcast. We want students to be inspired and think about public health as a career choice. We want them to hear from public health nurses who are passionate and excited about what they do, so that they can see the depth and variety of opportunities there are to work with people and communities. And if they do choose public health, or have chosen it already, I hope this also inspires them to advocate and to give back to the field.

Blue: It’s a career where nurses have considerable variety and can move to other areas of practice. Public health nursing offers lots of flexibility, learning and growth opportunities. For the general public, I think just hearing these human-interest stories will change their viewpoints about public health. Hopefully anyone, whether they are a nurse or not, can relate to this content and be informed.

Cava: These are true stories from the field. We hope students, nursing colleagues and those in other disciplines will listen and consider the impact of public health nursing.

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