Sullivan began as the public health nurse in 1996, moving into the health director position 13 years ago.
Among her achievements serving in the Health Department was enforcement of the town bylaw dealing with rental properties, which she said has created safer housing for tenants related to codes requiring working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, safe egresses, and adequate heat. The job also required her to address housing issues related to rodent/insect infestation, bedbugs, and lead paint.
In 2019, Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the Massachusetts Association of Public Health Nurses and was honored to have received this recognition from her fellow public health nurses.
“Many times in this role, decisions have to be made that aren’t always popular, but the best interests of the community take precedence,” she told The Hull Times in a recent interview. “A couple of examples are requiring face masks to be worn and people to isolate and quarantine if they test positive for COVID-19 or have had an exposure” to someone with the coronavirus.
Looking back, Sullivan started as a registered nurse early in her career, working at Carney Hospital in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. After a nurses’ strike in 1986, she left her position to take on home care/agency work and was employed part-time with the Hingham Health Department before joining the Hull Board of Health.
Her main goals while serving as public health director were to provide the community with a healthy environment in which to live, flu and COVID-19 vaccinations, and blood pressure clinics and to offer guidance for “problem issues” in the community including trash, animals, beach water quality, safe restaurants, food inspections, hoarding, the spread of communicable disease, mental health issues among the elderly and other residents with limited resources (especially during the pandemic), and sometimes just to offer a listening ear.
A favorite part of the job for Sullivan was the daily contact she had with people, especially some of Hull’s elderly residents “who just needed to hear a [friendly] voice, a call to check on them, or the answer to a question related to their health or other issue. Many live alone and don’t have family nearby,” she noted.
She also enjoyed working with the Hull police and fire departments, the Council on Aging, the Veterans’ Services office, the Building Department, the Department of Public Works, and other town agencies. “We worked as a team and helped each other out,” Sullivan said.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of her career was dealing with the pandemic that has gripped the world since early 2020. The coronavirus is and continues to pose a challenge, she said, including ensuring that people are following guidance related to the virus and performing contact tracing to help control the spread of COVID-19.
“It was especially frustrating and challenging to have residents and others question some of the decisions that were being made,” she said. “When Governor Charlie Baker [cut off the supply of the coronavirus vaccine] to local health departments, it meant many residents would not get the vaccine” due to transportation and other issues.
This was particularly problematic, according to Sullivan, because initially local health departments were asked if they would be willing to administer the vaccine.
“Hull, among many other communities, felt that we were prepared to hold an emergency [vaccination] clinic; that’s what we train for,” she said. “We were ready for our residents and then had no control over [the governor’s] decision.”
While Sullivan is looking forward to her retirement, she will miss what she referred to as her “awesome” staff.
“It’s very important that we work as a team and be crossed-trained, as the department is very small,” she said. “Joan Taverna came from the Weymouth Health Department to serve as the public health nurse in Hull. She has been a huge asset, with her previous knowledge as a PHN and her work for the Norwell Visiting Nurse Association.” Taverna was recently promoted as Sullivan’s successor.
Although she will miss seeing her co-workers, Sullivan lives in town and looks forward to meeting fellow residents “out and about. Hull is a great community, and people help each other out,” she said.