Dr. Kaye Bender is a Mississippian who has spent decades working in public health  She recently retired and has come back to Mississippi as executive director of the Mississippi Public Health Association. 

Bender also recently assumed the presidency of the American Public Health Association.  She is only the second Mississippian to hold the office.

Bender recently sat down with Mississippi Today to talk about her decision to come home to Mississippi, and the many challenges for those doing public health work in this time.

Editor’s note: This Q+A has been edited for length and clarity.

Mississippi Today: I’m excited to be talking to a Mississippian with such a distinguished career in public health. Can you just just walk me through all the different positions you’ve held? What interested you and made you want to go into the healthcare field? 

Dr. Kaye Bender: It’s been a long, long career, but it seems like it went by so quickly. So I’m originally from Laurel. And when I was 15, or 16, I had the opportunity to work at a South Mississippi Charity Hospital in Laurel as a candy striper. I’m guessing you don’t even know what that is.

MT: No, ma’am. I don’t.

Bender: Well, they don’t have them any more, unfortunately. But it was kind of a big deal for teenagers. Totally volunteer. You had a little bit of training about how to be around patients and all that kind of stuff. But basically what a candy striper did was to serve juice and coffee and snacks and help rock the babies in the nursery….It was a little auxiliary of young people, largely women in those days, who just got a chance to be exposed to health care and that sort of thing. 

So it was during that experience that I decided I wanted to become a nurse. I just thought it was so cool to be around people who were in the position to help people when they were experiencing trauma in their life or illness, but also happy things like having babies and that sort of thing. So when I graduated from high school, I went to Jones County Junior College for the two year nursing program to be a registered nurse and worked for a year in Laurel just as a general med surge nurse at the hospital. Then I got married and moved to Jackson, and when I started working in Jackson, I also went back to school to work on the next degree, my BS in Nursing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. 

But here’s where the public health part kicks in. I was working at a private hospital in Jackson. I was working in labor and delivery, neonatal and intensive care. I was 20 years old, and not very savvy at all. I was doing well to use my nursing skills to take care of patients, but I wasn’t very savvy at all about health care financing and policy. And I got really frustrated internally with the number of pregnant women who had not had any prenatal care because they didn’t have a way to pay for it. And that women showed up in the emergency room ready to deliver, only to be turned away and sent up the street to the University Medical Center. The rules are different now about what happens in emergency rooms, but it just frustrated me, just that sense of inequity long before we started talking about equity and disparities in health care. I got the sense of ‘is this how I want to spend my career?’ It just really became a burden. Then I was offered a position at the Hinds County Health Department working on a team to prevent high-risk pregnancies. And I thought, ‘okay, I can do that.’ So I went to work in that position and fell in love with public health in the broadest sense. And 26 years later, I left the health department, but I had five or six different jobs during that time.

MT: Over those 26 years, what sticks out in your mind as the the biggest improvements made to public health in Mississippi and in coming back now what do you see as the biggest challenges that we face in that area?

Bender: Unfortunately, we still have some of the same issues, but thankfully through the work of a lot of people across the state we have made quite a bit of progress. We’ve still got a long way to go. Over that 26 years, I spent about half of that time working at the local level leader at the county or public health district level and the last 12 years as being at the state level as Deputy State Health Commissioner, so I had a chance to work on a little bit of everything. I think our efforts on childhood immunizations through the years have certainly been very successful. We’ve had challenges with the COVID (vaccines). I don’t understand it. I know we’ve never seen anything like it before. 

And for the last 20 months or so we’ve all been learning as we’re going and that means that sometimes what you do changes, but what we do know about viruses and diseases is that if a vaccine can be produced, it can prevent or eradicate bad diseases. I mean, in my lifetime, we’ve seen people not have polio, we’ve seen people not have smallpox. And we’ve seen the rates of measles and mumps and rubella and even chickenpox and later shingles for older people really be reduced significantly. And we’ve seen deaths from influenza and pneumonia be reduced significantly. So I think in our state, particularly, one of our greatest wins has been immunization generally, of the kids. I would also say our challenge is to instill the same kind of confidence in COVID vaccinations that we’ve been able to for the other childhood vaccinations. And there’s the whole misinformation problem. I think the fact that people get information from a variety of sources is a good thing, but I also think it plays into this whole dilemma of individuals not being able to differentiate between what is misinformation, and what is good, solid scientific information. 

Another thing we’ve seen some improvements are the chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. We certainly have a population that is still far too obese, and therefore has more diabetes and hypertension than we should have, but in the time I’ve been in public health, the embracing of physical activity and eating better has changed significantly. But on the flip side, we have a long way to go because we still have so many areas that are food deserts, where a lot of poor families in particular don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Some of the disappointment for me is, I truly don’t understand the politicization of good public health when it comes to COVID. It’s perfectly fine that we disagree about policy related to our health, and I am certainly one who believes very strongly that people should have choices. But really, we’re all Mississippians and my public health philosophy is that the health of all of us determines the health of our state. And not just from a health standpoint, physically or psychologically, but economically. If we don’t have a healthy, well-educated workforce then we don’t have a healthy state. And so when we politicize the opportunities to offer good advice and sound policy advice relating to everything from pandemics, to quality education, to Medicaid expansion, or other ways to improve access to health care like telehealth, then that’s not a political question to me, that’s a question of taking care of each other so that our whole state becomes stronger.

MT: Will you tell me a bit about when you found out that you were going to be the president of the American Public Health Association, and executive director of the Mississippi Public Health Association? What was that process like for you?

Dr. Bender: I’m incredibly blessed with both those titles. When I left the Washington D.C. Public Health Accreditation Board in December of 2019 to come back to the state, one of my greatest concerns was whether I could be useful back in the state.  I’ve been gone for ten years and you lose a lot of context about public health work over that kind of time period. I certainly wasn’t ready to sit on the front porch in a rocking chair all the time, there will be a time for that, but not yet. The first first offer came when the executive director of the Mississippi Public Health Association decided to retire. Charles “Buddy” Daughdrill had done an awesome job. He and I had worked together in the past. And so the question came to me from someone who’s very active in that association, so I applied for the job and got it in May of 2020. I was just very thrilled to be back in the arena of education, advocacy policy, and in general, being very supportive of not only the health department, but nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, and others who promote the health of Mississippians. So I was happy as a clam to have that job and to teach a little bit at once and thought, okay, I can be useful. 

So it’s gonna be a wild year, but I’m looking forward to meeting with public health professionals all around the country. We have some serious work to do, across the country and in Mississippi to rebuild our public health system. COVID-19 took its toll in a lot of ways, but I’m hopeful that we can get past this and rebuild  and be stronger from the lessons we’ve learned.

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.