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West Allis health commissioner honored for her healthy approach

Nusslock helped city achieve rare national accreditation

June 18, 2013

West Allis — Sally Nusslock worked for years as an intensive care nurse and saw first-hand the devastating effects heart attacks can have.

It made her think, "There has to be a better way than fixing it after the fact," Nusslock recalled this week. So she went into public health nursing that promotes healthy lifestyles to head off sometimes tragic health conditions.

In fact, Nusslock said she knew in high school that she wanted to be a nurse.

"I really enjoy working with people and helping people," she said.

Today she is head of the West Allis Health Department and has been honored by her peers as the 2013 Health Officer of the Year by the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards.

Credit for long effort

Part of the reason why is that, as the city's health commissioner, she led the way for her office to achieve national accreditation from the Public Health Accreditation Board, becoming the only city health department in the country to do so.

Accreditation means the Health Department meets rigorous standards of care and goes to great lengths to determine the health needs of the community and then develop programs to address those needs, Nusslock said.

"We're very proud," she said. "We do a lot of good work in the community, and it's nice to see that national recognition."

But she emphasized that the five-year effort to obtain the national accreditation was as a team — the department has an accreditation coordinator and an accreditation team.

When representatives from the Public Health Accreditation Board came for two days of on-site visits, she said, "The staff was instrumental in strutting our stuff, so to speak."

Winning accreditation has led to calls from health departments all over the country wanting to know how they could also achieve accreditation, Nusslock said. And the department's accreditation coordinator was invited to give a talk in May to health officials gathered at a conference in Atlanta.

"For West Allis to get that recognition is very positive," Nusslock said.

Valued employee

West Allis Mayor Dan Devine said it's time for Nusslock to be honored.

"She's got a good vision for the community and how the department can benefit the community, and she is very deserving of the honor," Devine said.

Nusslock has been with the West Allis Health Department for 22 years. She was appointed as its head last year but served as interim director before that.

"She was an outstanding employee before becoming the health commissioner and has done an outstanding job since," Devine said.

Healthy roles

Looking back on her years in public health, Nusslock said, "It's very rewarding to know you make a difference in people's lives, that they can be healthier."

The department does a survey and works with the schools and police and fire departments to determine the health needs in the city. Then the department works with those other agencies to develop programs to meet those needs.

For example, the department tackled the problem of premature babies or low-weight babies born to mothers who smoke. It developed the First Breath Program, in which the department works with pregnant women to help them give up smoking.

"We've had great success with that," Nusslock said. "A large percentage do quit at least for the pregnancy and the immediate time after birth."

Indeed, the number of early and low birth weight babies has been reduced, she said.

For many years, the department also has had a program that teaches mothers about the normal growth and development of children, so that parents can seek help if they notice their child is not developing as other children do, Nusslock said. The goal is to make sure the children are more ready to learn when they get to kindergarten.

Beyond that, the Health Department promotes healthy lifestyles — eating more fruits and vegetables, keeping a healthy weight, exercising and getting screened for potential health issues.

AT A GLANCE

Sally Nusslock, West Allis Heath Department commissioner, has played a statewide role for many years through the Wisconsin Public Health Association and the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards. Among her activities for the groups have been:

· serving on the legislative review committee that analyzes the impacts of proposed legislation on public health

· evaluating public health data so that it can be used to improve public health

· reviewing the state health plan

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