Annie DePugh has always wanted to help people.
In high school, she dreamed of working for the American Red Cross and encouraged her classmates to become organ donors. So when a University at Buffalo recruiter suggested a nursing major, DePugh took the advice.
She did well in nursing. She loved her classmates, the program and her teachers, but she was especially intrigued by the community health courses.
DePugh began applying to graduate programs in public health in her senior year and was accepted into the University of Albany’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program.
“I love being a nurse, but direct patient care was never my end goal,” DePugh said. “I knew my next step wasn’t going to be working on the nursing floor in a hospital; I wanted to get an MPH. I wanted to look at the overall well-being of the community.
DePugh earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Buffalo in May 2008 and passed the National Council licensing exam (required to become a registered nurse) that summer. By the time her MPH classes began in Albany, she had a job as a graduate assistant and had begun to put her RN license to good use, securing a job as a flu shot administrator for Maxim Healthcare Services. .
“I was beginning to use my nursing diploma, but within the framework of community health. It was really wonderful,” she said.
Then the American economy collapsed and DePugh noticed that MPH graduate students had difficulty finding jobs in the field. With the future uncertain, she applied to a hospital in Albany and was soon hired as a registered nurse in an intensive care unit.
She then decided to put her graduate program on hold, although she expected to return in a year or two.
Over the next few years, DePugh left the hospital and joined Maxim Healthcare Services, working in home care. She was promoted to Director of Clinical Services and moved to White Plains, NY, before leaving Maxim to become a Discharge Planning Nurse at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, NY.
“Again, I straddled acute nursing and community care,” DePugh said. “I had my RN license and had a year of MPH under my belt, but I was taking a new approach to using my RN license and skills.”
A home visit changed everything
During a visit to her hometown of Vestal, NY, DePugh reconnected with a man she had known since they were middle schoolers. The two fell in love and started applying for jobs near each other.
DePugh soon got a call from UHS (a Binghamton-area health system) and was hired as a charge nurse for a program called Medicaid Health Home.
Nearly 10 years and a few promotions later, DePugh is now a system director in the Department of Population Health Management at UHS.
“Keeping patients safe, happy, healthy and as independent as possible is something that is close to my heart,” DePugh said.
To buckle the buckle
In 2018, Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger gave a presentation at UHS about the University’s plans for expansion into the health sciences. It was then that DePugh learned that Binghamton had launched a master’s degree in public health the previous year.
“When I heard that, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to complete my MPH degree,” she said.
Before applying to the program, DePugh met Yvonne Johnston ’93, MS ’97, associate professor and founding director of the Division of Public Health at Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences in Binghamton. DePugh was curious about her options and aware that: 1) It had been a decade since she finished her first year of the MPH program at Albany, and 2) Earning a graduate degree would be a challenge with a job. full time, husband and child.
At the meeting, DePugh found Johnston and Christine Podolak, associate director of experiential education, Division of Public Health, extremely supportive. “I remember coming home from that meeting thinking, I gotta do this. I want to do this,” she said.
DePugh started the MPH program in the fall of 2019 with an added consideration: She was pregnant with her second child. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She originally planned to take the fall 2020 semester for maternity leave, but since the University was fully online this semester, she continued the MPH program without requiring a break.
Binghamton’s MPH program offers a part-time option, which allowed DePugh to work with his family and his full-time job at UHS. It was a challenge, she admitted, as was the fact that DePugh was older than her classmates.
“There’s definitely a noticeable age gap, but it’s not something disruptive,” DePugh said. “It didn’t bother me and I hope it didn’t bother the rest of the cohort.
“I have at least 10 years of professional experience. I lived through H1N1 and Ebola, so I feel like that was my contribution to class discussions,” she added.
This extensive experience was put to good use during DePugh’s three MPH internships, which focused on developing and running a high-risk COVID vaccine clinic at UHS. The initiative emerged at the start of COVID vaccinations, as healthcare workers were among the first eligible to receive vaccines. UHS has recognized the need for a safer vaccination environment for employees with a history of severe allergy or asthma. The clinic was located across from the emergency department of UHS Binghamton General Hospital, making it quicker and easier to get care if someone were to experience anaphylaxis or have another negative reaction to the vaccine.
It was a great idea, and it didn’t stay secret for long. Soon, staff at the state-run mass vaccination clinic in Johnson City, NY, were referring people based on their medical history or negative response to the first dose of the vaccine. DePugh said more than 200 people were sent to the UHS high-risk clinic, where she also served as a vaccination nurse.
COVID was also at the center of DePugh’s MPH synthesis project. She created a survey that assessed professional attitudes and behaviors toward COVID-19 vaccination.
“It’s been truly fascinating, and of course tragic, to live and breathe this pandemic and to have the opportunity to work so closely with the COVID vaccine,” DePugh said. “And, I came full circle because when I was in my first MPH program, my first work experience was giving flu and H1N1 vaccines.”
Later this month, DePugh will finally graduate from MPH. What’s next for her?
“I’m lucky enough to already be working in population health and occupational medicine, but I think [the MPH degree] can only open new doors,” she said. “In this post-pandemic world, I am open to anything I can do to serve the community.”