Public Health Nurse Helps Transform Blighted Border Town into Beacon of Hope

    • November 16, 2015
A woman stands outside a house with her arms around her son.

Arturo Rodriguez was born and raised in one of the poorest cities in the country, but he’s made it his life’s work to lift up his hometown—and he’s succeeding in this Herculean task.

Last year, Brownsville, Texas, an impoverished border town on the banks of the Rio Grande, won a prestigious Culture of Health Prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) for its efforts to drive local change and help good health flourish.

Rodriguez, RN, RS, MPH, a nurse and the city’s director of public health and wellness, played a key role in the city’s transformation from blighted city to beacon of hope.

A strong proponent of improving the city’s “built environment,” Rodriguez was a key partner in an effort to turn two sections of an abandoned rail line into a mile-long paved trail. Now tree-lined and well-lit, the Belden Trail is used by walkers, joggers, bike-riders, dog-walkers, and kids on their way to school. “Clean, healthy, and safe environments motivate people and help them feel good about their own health,” he says. “People are more likely to go outside to take a walk, or play on the playground, or bike to work, if they’re not afraid of getting bitten by a dog, being harassed, or worse.”

Rodriguez’ interest in health goes back as long as he can remember. As a young boy, he witnessed a baby begin to drown in nearby lake—and then looked on as emergency responders resuscitated him. A few years later, his young neighbor was killed in a car accident—another event that prompted him to consider a future in health care.

As a teenager, Rodriguez volunteered at a local emergency department and then became a paramedic, a respiratory therapist, and, eventually, director of the city’s emergency medical services. He then moved into public health so he could focus on low-cost, broad-scale change and health and wellness. “In emergency care, you can spend $1 million to save just one life, but public health is the inverse; you’re given $1, and you’re expected to use it to save 100,000 lives.”

Living Conditions and Disease

Rodriguez oversaw water quality and use at a state environmental agency and then, while earning his master’s degree in public health, oversaw nursing staff at a home health care company where he saw close-up the social factors that influence health. “Visiting nurses get to see patients in their home environments,” he says. “They have opportunities to see how people’s living conditions relate to disease.”

Those observations led Rodriguez to join Brownsville’s department of public health, where he monitors food-borne disease and environmental quality and promotes public health and wellness. It’s a major challenge in Brownsville, which was named the poorest city in the country by a financial news site in 2013. In addition to high poverty, the city is plagued by poor health and chronic disease. In some ways, Rodriguez says, it was a glimpse into a dystopian future. “Without change, the rest of the country will look like what Brownsville did eight years ago.”

But things are looking up in Brownsville, thanks in part to the revitalized trail—a project that is now being emulated in nearby towns and cities. The city is now also home to a handful of gyms that have cropped up in the last six years and has expanded a limited smoking ban so that it applies to bars, sports facilities, and other public arenas.

Rodriguez, meanwhile, keeps in constant contact with his public health counterparts across the border in Mexico to share information about outbreaks of disease. He supports programs that promote literacy, education, and hiking and biking in the city. And he uses communications and advocacy tools, such as city-wide weight-loss and outdoor exercise programs—to change habits. Thanks to Rodriguez, Brownsville now holds two Guinness world records for the largest public Zumba and Zumbatomic classes. “We wanted to spark our young people’s imagination and encourage them to believe in themselves,” he said. “It worked.”

The city’s success is drawing national attention. In addition to its RWJF’s Culture of Health Prize, Brownsville was designated one of 10 “All-America” cities last year by the National Civic League. And Rodriguez was one of 25 public health nurse leaders selected to participate in a two-year leadership development program supported by RWJF. “We’re starting to see an increase in physical activity in our city, and we’re starting to see people make health a higher priority,” Rodriguez says. “That’s what a Culture of Health community offers: hope to citizens and support as they trek along on a lifetime commitment to better health.”