MSc Public Health and Health Promotion. Class of 2011. Public Health Protector. Craniosynostosis Campaigner.
Gemma Cox in conversation with Rachel Thomas – Centenary Interview
What was your favourite thing about studying at Swansea University?
When I decided that I wanted to do a Public Health Masters I was keen to study close to home so that I could continue to work and be close to my family. I’ve always loved living by the sea and so being able to walk down to the beach during my lunch break was definitely one of the highlights of studying at Swansea University.
Was there anyone in particular inspire who inspired you to pursue a career in public health?
During my first year at Swansea University I had a guest speaker from Welsh Government deliver a lecture on school health promotion. She talked about the evidence base and the range of interventions that were being delivered in Wales. In particular, she talked about the Welsh Network of Healthy Schools Scheme (WNHSS) and how she was part of setting this up in Wales. She talked about the incredible work the healthy schools coordinators were doing in supporting schools across Wales to implement a whole school approach to health and wellbeing within the ethos and culture of schools in Wales. I was so inspired by this, I went home that evening and told my husband that I finally found something I wanted to do. Two months later I got my first job with Public Health Wales as a schools smoking prevention trainer and 10 years later, I got the role of National lead for the Welsh Network of Healthy Schools scheme. I was very fortunate to share this story with that same lady before she retired in 2019 and this was by far one of the key highlights of my career.
Where do you think you have made the biggest impact to the public/community in your career?
More recently, it has to be my role in helping with COVID 19. The settings I’ve been in contact with are working in extremely stressful environments and my role has involved offering support to key workers within enclosed settings, providing up to date information and guidance. Before the days of COVID 19, it’s the work I’ve been involved in around educational settings and how I’ve helped to promote the health of all who learn, work and play within a school setting across Wales. The aim of the healthy school scheme is to promote and protect the physical, emotional and social health and well-being of children and young people in Wales. Recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as playing a key role in promoting the health of children and young people, the Scheme has been rolled out across Wales since 1999, and is part of Schools for Health in Europe (SHE). 99% of schools in Wales are part of our scheme and working towards achieving a whole school approach to health and wellbeing. The scheme addresses the ethos, policies and practices of each school, while also focusing on what happens in the classroom and taking account of the community beyond the school.
You're currently working on the front line and you're doing a fantastic job in helping the public through the pandemic:
- Can you tell us what your work involves right now?
I am currently working as a COVID 19 advisor for enclosed Settings. This involves engaging with a range of closed settings, in particular residential/care homes, sheltered housing, hostels and prisons. Our aim is to reduce transmission by ensuring that infection prevention and control measures are understood and applied, to provide information for action by gathering and reporting robust data on confirmed and possible cases of COVD-19 in these settings and to ensure proactive support for closed settings facing possible crises by identifying any settings which have high levels of risk or need. It is a challenging time for everyone and COVID 19 is a very fast-moving issue. As a practitioner, I’ve had to keep up to date daily with the situation as it develops to ensure I am giving the most up to date guidance and information at all times.
"The last few months during COVID 19, I’ve been able to put this theory in to practice more than ever and it has been a reminder what a pivotal role Public Health plays and how proud I am to be part of it."
- Did your degree prepare you for this at all?
Yes, I learned about the role of Public Health during the Masters course and was fascinated to learn about how it’s about improving health outcomes for populations through preventing disease and the health consequences of environmental hazards and natural or man-made disasters. I learned about the importance of promoting behaviours that reduce the risk of communicable and non-communicable diseases and injuries; and ensuring the public's access to quality health services. The last few months during COVID 19, I’ve been able to put this theory in to practice more than ever and it has been a reminder what a pivotal role Public Health plays and how proud I am to be part of it.
- What has the response been like from the people you have helped?
Every setting that I have been in touch with have been so grateful and appreciative for the advice and support. Those working in enclosed settings are working in extremely stressful environments during this time and are faced with the constant challenges that COVID 19 is bringing. I’ve been very humbled by the staff members in these settings and how much support and effort they have given to the residents in their care and how proactive they’ve been in supporting their residents and staff members.
"Those 6 months were extremely difficult for me and my family but what helped us through it was the support from the charity ‘Cranio ribbons’."
You've done an amazing job at raising awareness and money for Cranio Ribbons. Can you tell us a bit about the charity, and why you hold it so close to your heart?
At the start of 2017, I found out that my son had a condition called craniosynostosis. This is where one or more sutures of the skull fuse too early causing problems with normal brain and skull growth as well as the pressure inside of the head to increase. Although this was very noticeable at birth, nobody picked it up. When he was around 9 months old, a passing comment from a GP about his ‘unusual shaped head’ triggered me to do some research and it was then that I found the condition, metopic craniosynostosis. The key to treating craniosynostosis is early detection and treatment. If this condition is left untreated, it can lead to serious complications. We had the diagnosis in January 2017 but had to wait a further 6 months for Charles to receive the 10 hours surgery at Birmingham Children’s Hospital where they removed his skull and rebuilt it allowing room for his brain to grow. Those 6 months were extremely difficult for me and my family but what helped us through it was the support from the charity ‘Cranio ribbons’. It is a charity set up by three parents who have been through the same journey as we have with a mission to help other families and to raise more awareness of the condition. From answering the numerous questions I had, sharing real life stories with me, sending us a teddy bear with a scar across the head so that we could show my son and his older brother what to expect after the surgery. They also sent a care package to us for our time spent in Birmingham which included messages of support from other parents and some essentials for our stay. When the surgery was a success and we stepped out of the hospital in August 2017, we made it our mission to raise more awareness of the condition and to give something back to the charity that helped us through the hardest time of our lives. Our family and friends have also joined us on this mission and in 2018 a team of 11 of us climbed the Welsh 3000’s. Again in 2019 we completed the trailwalker 2019 challenge which involved walking 100km across mountains. So far, we’ve raised over £10,000 for the charity and we will continue every year with one big challenge so we can continue to support the charity and raise awareness.
We know that you’ll be an inspiration to many of our readers, but who is your inspiration? Where do you get your drive to succeed?
I’ve been so inspired by the work of my colleagues in Public Health Wales and all the other key workers during the COVID 19 crisis. We have had to adjust and learn quickly to this new way of working and keeping up to date with the guidance and information that we provide and I am very proud to be part of it. My family have always been and will always be my drive to succeed. They have also had to adjust during these times, and they have had to make sacrifices so that I can continue to work and I am so very proud and grateful to them all for this.