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Uselman: It’s time to give MN firefighters the health support they need

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It’s well-known that those in the fire service experience much higher rates of mental health challenges than the general population – particularly in the areas of sleep disorders, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation/action. During my tenure as the Wadena Fire Chief, I’ve had to direct firefighters to leave a gruesome scene where perhaps a loved one was tragically lost; or simply not respond to a call that may cause them emotional trauma. It’s estimated that 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions including depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as compared with 20 percent in the general population.

In addition to widespread mental health issues, firefighters also struggle from disproportionately high rates of cardiovascular and cancer issues. These issues have impacted firefighters and their families across the state, but I’ve also seen them affect firefighters in many of our own communities right here in central and northwestern Minnesota, many of whom we have worked with on an emergency scene during large fires or the Wadena tornado.

Statewide, last year was one of the deadliest years in modern memory for Minnesota’s fire service, and it included multiple suicides of active firefighters, numerous deaths from cancer and two very public Line of Duty Deaths from cardiac issues: Howard Lake Fire & Rescue/Ambulance Chief Daryl Drusch and Fridley Fire Chief Mike Spencer. There are others locally, but I will respect the privacy of those departments and the families involved. Like most of us, the stressors and delay of routine preventative care visits as a result of the coronavirus pandemic will likely significantly impact firefighters’ future health, as well.

Critical funding shortages throughout Minnesota departments make it difficult for fire service leaders to prioritize firefighter health measures and equipment, such as department-wide health checkups, gear-cleaning tools and mental health resources. Departments do as much as they can with limited resources, but there is no unified vision or commitment at the state level to prioritize fire service funding.

I appreciate the commitment of the City of Wadena and its residents in budgeting funds and supporting volunteer fundraising efforts of the Wadena firefighters to provide the necessary equipment and personal protective equipment needed to safely and effectively perform our duties. Not all departments are able to afford basic equipment needs, let alone to assist firefighters with support for the big three – cancer, cardiac, and emotional issues.

Thankfully, there is a nonprofit organization that is working to overturn what has become a dangerous pattern. The Minnesota Firefighter Initiative (MnFIRE) launched in 2017 as an innovative and inclusive approach to unify and spark conversations among firefighters, their families, their communities and state policymakers regarding firefighter health.

One of the key ways local fire leaders can respond to this health crisis is by getting their fire departments signed up for one of MnFIRE’s Awareness trainings, which are free to firefighters across the state through June 2021. These trainings are taught by firefighters and other health experts and provide firefighters with actionable tips on how to protect themselves from the three problems most commonly experienced by those in the fire service. Most of the Wadena Fire Department has received this training and found it valuable and informative regarding the dangerous impacts of the big three. With continued funding these trainings can continue to benefit firefighters new to the fire service.

In addition to education, MnFIRE is advocating for the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program bill in the Minnesota legislature. Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Howe (R, District 13) in the Senate (SF 621) and Rep. Cheryl Youakim (D, District 46B) in the House (HF 377), the bill promises to improve access to care for firefighters in critical need of treatment. By establishing a much-needed statewide $7.2 million appropriation of funds to help firefighters who are facing cardiac, emotional trauma and cancer issues – and to prevent the diseases from plaguing future firefighters.

The bill establishes one-time lump-sum “Critical Care” grants for all Minnesota firefighters diagnosed with cancer or cardiac issues, guaranteeing $30,000 per diagnosis. It also creates an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for all Minnesota firefighters facing emotional trauma issues unique to their occupation. We as Minnesotans can no longer stand back and ignore the unmet needs of those men and women who answer the call to serve, and are then left alone with the emotional stressors of their duty, sometimes considering suicide as the only way out.

According to statistics from December 2019, Minnesota ranks 48th in the nation in fire department and firefighter funding, down from 44th in just one year. Something must be done to reverse these harrowing trends. Passage of this legislation will help ensure that firefighters in Minnesota have the resources they need to help them deal with these lifechanging illnesses; while giving encouragement to new recruits considering firefighting as a career or in a voluntary capacity.

We must all do our part to help support the men and women who protect us and our communities every day. Please reach out to your legislator and ask them to support the heroes in our fire service by passing the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program swiftly this legislative session.

Dean Uselman is the retired Wadena Fire Department Chief.

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Health

Health Fusion: Garden tip 1 for veggie success

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As a health reporter, I’m always reading scholarly research articles. A quick journal search reveals an ever-increasing number of studies on the health benefits of gardening. But I knew that getting my hands dirty in the soil was good for my mind and body long before I started reading and writing about it. Gardening helped me cope with the COVID-19 situation, and now I’m a huge advocate of inspiring others to grow things.

I’m particularly excited about vegetable gardening and how it gets people to put more veggies on their plate. A study from the University of Michigan reports that kids who do gardening activities tend to up their intake of vegetables. And we all know that vegetables and fruits are good for our overall health.

In order to help you be successful at growing (and hopefully eating) vegetables, I have some tips that I’ll share throughout the season. Tip No. 1: Start with the soil. Plants get nutrients form the soil, and, just like humans, they need a healthy balance to grow. So before you add fertilizer, you need to know what’s already there.

In particular, you need to know the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the soil. The University of Minnesota, North Dakota State University and other institutions have soil testing labs that can analyze samples you send them. Then they return the results, which include recommendations for the type of fertilizer you should use, to amend the soil before planting.

Properly amended, nutrient-rich soil will help your garden get off to a great growing start.

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Anita Bennett and Kelly King Horne column: Homelessness is a public health crisis | Columnists

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Homeward ensured that the shelter program met U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines, secured additional private funding and helped coordinate public funding for the Pandemic Shelter.

As the pandemic evolved, so, too, did our system’s response to those experiencing homelessness. We adjusted procedures to adhere to the latest guidance and expanded the Pandemic Shelter to meet the expanded need.

So, what did we learn from the pandemic?

First, homelessness is as much a public health challenge as it is a housing challenge. Housing instability is a deadly proposition for a great many people and cuts short the lives of those who are experiencing homelessness.

Medical professionals and health care providers need to meet people where they are. That’s why in addition to its primary care, behavioral health and dental services from its physical locations, Daily Planet Health Services now offers mobile medical services to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness.

This shift in approach also explains the success of our region’s vaccination efforts. Daily Planet has administered more than 4,600 COVID-19 vaccine shots to individuals experiencing homelessness and those who are working in shelters.

Second, we learned that shelter can be a lifesaving intervention. Shelter isn’t housing and it’s not a permanent solution. It’s one step toward stable housing, but it’s often a crucial step. Simply providing a safe space to stay temporarily saved lives.

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Shawnee Health Care’s Felicia Kimbrough says nursing ties in many of her passions | Special Sections

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Kimbrough.jpeg

Felicia Kimbrough NP, DNP, has a nursing practice which is a little different than most.

As a nurse practitioner for Shawnee Health Care’s Terrier Care location inside Carbondale Community High School, her clientele, daily activities and role is unique.

“Terrier Care is literally inside the school,” the 41-year-old Carterville resident shares. “We provide health care to the students at CCHS along with all of the feeder schools as well as the families of those students, faculty and staff and their families, so it allows me the unique opportunity to literally be with my patients five days a week in the same building for years at a time. Many times, it allows me to know families, to know back stories and to really get to know my patients. I love it.” 

Kimbrough has been at Terrier Care for five years following positions at a federally-funded clinic in Louisville, time at Marshall Browning Hospital in Du Quoin and other roles with Shawnee. All told, she’s been a nurse for 20 years.

She says nursing combines many of her passions.

“I have always really loved science and I love reading and I love people,” she explains. “Nursing is a perfect bridge to all of the things that I love. I get to ‘do’ science every day; I get to talk with people every day and get to be a part of some great things in their lives.”

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