On the final episode of the first season of AIMing to Inform, hear from Immediate Past AIM Chair and Connecticut immunization program manager Kathy Kudish. This motivational leader shares her keys to managing a successful immunization program through a pandemic and beyond. Kathy also discusses how she juggles her double duties as a public health veterinarian, leads dynamic teams, and manages burnout.
Speaker Bio: Kathy Kudish
Kathy Kudish is a veterinarian by training, but her goal was always to work in public health rather than clinical practice because she believes public health to be more impactful. After completing a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Connecticut, a master’s degree in public health at Tulane, and a veterinary degree at LSU, followed by two years of full-time emergency practice, she went to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an Epidemic Intelligence (EIS) Officer in 2004. A pertussis outbreak among the Amish during her EIS training piqued her interest in vaccine-preventable disease.
In 2006 she joined the Connecticut Department of Public Health to work in the Immunization Program, and she has made it her home. Kathy has been working in immunizations for the past 17 years. Initially, she worked as an epidemiologist and the vaccine-preventable disease surveillance unit supervisor until she became the immunization program manager in 2016. Kathy served as Chair of the AIM in 2022.
Brent Ewig 01:14
Welcome back to the latest episode of Aiming To Inform. I’m your host, Brent Ewig, and thrilled to be joined today by Kathy Kudish, who is the Connecticut Immunization Program Manager and the illustrious chair of the AIM Executive Committee. Kathy, welcome to the podcast.
Kathy Kudish 1:30
Thank you, Brent. I’m so happy to be here.
Brent Ewig 01:33
Excellent. So, we also like to start with just learning a little bit more about what was your path into your current position and what motivates you to do this work.
Kathy Kudish 01:42
Yeah. So, I’m a veterinarian by training but my goal was always to work in public health rather than be in clinical practice because I believe public health is just a way to be more impactful. So, after completing a master’s degree in public health at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and a veterinary degree at Louisiana State University, I worked in practice – full-time emergency – for two years, and then I went to work at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an epidemic intelligence officer in 2004. While I had that assignment. There was a pertussis outbreak, also known as Whooping Cough, which is a vaccine preventable disease among the Amish community in Delaware, where I was assigned, and that really piqued my interest in vaccine preventable diseases. So in 2006, when that program ended, I joined the Connecticut Department of Public Health. I wanted to move back home to Connecticut and so I joined the immunization program and I’ve made that my home, from my role as an epidemiologist, when I started with the program, then moving to immunization program manager in 2016. Every step of this career path has been both challenging and rewarding. Probably in equal measure.
Brent Ewig 02:58
That’s a great story and a couple of quick follow-ups on that. You, first, you mentioned being a veterinarian, so I suppose you know what you call a pony with a sore throat?
Kathy Kudish 03:08
Oh no, I don’t think I do.
Brent Ewig 03:10
That’s a little horse. And then you had also mentioned some great universities there, and certainly Connecticut is known for many of its universities and I can’t joke Connecticut.
Kathy Kudish 03:25
Oh, very very funny. UConn is my alma mater for undergraduate.
Brent Ewig 03:34
There we go. So switching to a little more serious. We all know that that COVID has been very tough on our sector and its leaders and that all this urgent work has led to what some have called “the great resignation.” We’ve lost a lot of both staff and all that institutional knowledge. Can you talk a little bit about how Covid has impacted your team’s turnover and burnout situation?
Kathy Kudish 03:57
Yeah, it’s true. We are tired and we did face burnout, but I think maybe less than you would think. I would say that some people did retire early on in the pandemic. That impacted more of the agency than our program of immunization staff. And where there were a few retirements, we were able to fill those positions and hire some new, very talented, creative staff, new ideas and train them up. And overall, I think that we are stronger now than when we started. You know, but, but the pandemic was long. It was and, you know, it’s still going on, but there were definitely peaks and valleys during their response. And so, I think at this point, you know, we’re, we’re able to sort of recharge, regroup, and I, I think the team is doing okay. I, I worry about the next challenge because we do need that downtime. We do need some time to reflect and sort of think about, sort of, the work that happened before the pandemic had a return to that in a meaningful way. But I do, I do think we’re getting there, slowly but surely, and I think people who were feeling burnt out are feeling better at this point.
Brent Ewig 05:12
Good to hear. Can you talk a little bit about, you know, where there’s opportunities to be creative with resources and what has worked during the pandemic that you think we should keep in place in the years to come?
Kathy Kudish 05:23
Yes. So, community engagement and trust building in communities. Really going back to the basic fundamentals of outreach and education. Translated materials for people who are non-English speaking and working with trusted leaders in communities has been so important and continues to be so important. And then, once you have that trust, we need to have some capacity for mobile clinics and be able to offer services beyond the nine-to-five workday. So, you have to have the trust so that people will go out and get vaccinated and that you create the access for them to do so. We created a redistribution network for vaccines because, you know, we all know that providers need different numbers of vaccines. Some need small quantities and so we need to be able to redistribute vaccine to these sort of smaller practices because people want to go to their primary care provider for vaccination. They have that trusted relationship. So, it’s another way of creating access, and we should continue to have vaccine services for homebound individuals. So, these were three really important programs that started and were funded during Covid-19 that we really need to diversify to create access for the range of vaccines, not just Covid vaccines. And I think it’s very important that these services continue beyond the pandemic, but they are expensive.
Brent Ewig 06:52
Kathy Kudish 06:53
Many need to be funded. One other thing is the relationships that we’ve built with the healthcare industry that should be continued. We had regular standing meetings with hospitals, long-term care facilities, primary care organizations, and retail pharmacies. And so those partnerships should continue.
Brent Ewig 07:13
Excellent. So some real concrete examples there. Before we move on to the next section, is there any advice you’d have for immunization teams?
Kathy Kudish 07:22
Yes. I, I think building a team takes time and intentional effort and a vision, and so you work with the team that you’ve got. Might not always be the team of your choosing. So, I don’t believe many immunization program managers have the opportunity for formal training in leadership, but this is vital and it’s so important. So, my advice is to take the time to connect with the team you have, build those relationships, and look to AIM for support. AIM has been my lifeline – always there to help and I am so grateful to AIM for the support and attention that the organization gives to leadership and all things that support immunization program managers. This is a tough job but it’s very important and very rewarding.
Brent Ewig 08:08
Excellent. So, you’ve had a lot to juggle professionally and I understand you were the interim veterinarian lead for your state in addition to being the immunization manager. So, can you tell us how do you do it? What’s that like?
Kathy Kudish 08:21
I am so lucky. I love being a student. I love learning. And you know, in School of Public Health, I was able to meet people from all over the world interested in public health. In veterinary school, I got to learn all about becoming a veterinarian, participate in clinical practice, and do that for 17 years part-time. During that time that I was part-time, I could work at the Department of Public Health for the past 17 years and, and grow in public health. So, I have to admit that veterinary clinical practice is not all puppies and kittens as we like to imagine and I practiced emergency medicine and there was a lot of personal tragedy in that practice. I love clinical practice, but it’s not quite enough for me. I wanted to make an impact on people’s health more directly. And public health focuses on the health of populations, whether focusing on veterinary public health, or immunizations. I’m extremely fortunate to have this career and I never lose sight of that.
Brent Ewig 09:17
Um, Before we go to the next session, since we were talking about veterinarians and other animals besides cats and dogs. I do have the question – do you know what a buffalo says to its child when they leave for college?
Kathy Kudish 09:28
“You’re off the payroll.” Oh, sorry.
Brent Ewig 09:32
Also good, but they usually say, “bye, son.”
Kathy Kudish 09:36
I like that. That’s better than “you’re off the payroll.”
Brent Ewig 09:41
You’re on your own. But back to burnout and a lot on your shoulders. I’ll just say, you know, on behalf of AIM, you’ve been a really inspired, inspiring leader to all of us that, that keep chugging along. So, can you talk a little bit, for you personally, what are some of the ways that you’ve avoided burnout and built that resilience?
Kathy Kudish 09:57
Happy to exercise. Exercise, exercise, right. Quiet time outside. Walking my dogs. Gardening. Do a lot of hiking in the woods. Taking time with my family. Spending time with my entourage of pets, and I read for pleasure every single night. No matter what. No matter how tired I am, I read a little bit and if I fall asleep in the process, that’s fine. But all of those things have been really important to me for motivation and avoiding burnout.
Brent Ewig 10:27
I love this question. We’ve gotten some really great answers and those are right up there. Just curious, what are you reading now?
Kathy Kudish 10:33
You know, my problem is titles. Because I started reading on a Kindle. I can’t remember any titles, but I’m reading a, a new one by Kate Atkinson.
Brent Ewig 10:41
Kathy Kudish 10:42
Yeah, and so I just loved “Life After Life” by her so much. I read it many times. It was one of those books that I read and then started again all over immediately. So, I’ll have to look up the title for you.
Brent Ewig 10:54
Yeah, well that’s but that’s a great, a great recommendation. I’m writing that down to look up myself. So, before we turn to our last our rapid fire, three closing questions, just wanted to get your advice. What advice would you have for immunization managers who are just starting in their position?
Kathy Kudish 11:12
That’s easy. Connect with AIM, connect with your team, and listen more than you talk.
Brent Ewig 11:22
Excellent. Nice. So we have three questions in every episode that we ask of all of our guests, but before we do that, I just wanna ask you: first off, do you know…have you heard about the guy who invented the, this recent news? The guy who invented the knock, knock joke?
Kathy Kudish 11:36
Brent Ewig 11:36
Yeah, he won the No-Bell Prize. That may be the last dad joke of this series. At least for now.
Kathy Kudish 11:46
I wish I could sign up for your dad joke of day calendar.
Brent Ewig 11:51
But, as I mentioned, in every episode, we ask three questions rapid fire to close out the episode. Are you ready?
Kathy Kudish 11:57
Brent Ewig 11:58
Great. What is one thing you wish you could tell your younger, professional self?
Kathy Kudish 12:03
Give yourself a break, relax, treat yourself like you would treat your best friend.
Brent Ewig 12:09
What are you looking forward to professionally in the next year?
Kathy Kudish 12:14
We have passed some legislation in Connecticut that I think will have a positive impact on our immunization rates and ability to do outreach to the under-vaccinated community. So I am excited to look at the data coming in based on that legislation and I mean, really just return to focus on childhood immunizations. And one more thing. I know it’s supposed to be rapid fire, but working and mentoring with our new and existing staff.
Brent Ewig 12:42
Love it. And then the last is, what is the greatest value you get from the AIM community?
Kathy Kudish 12:49
Well, I think you said it right there – community support, friendship, and growth.
Brent Ewig 12:54
Excellent. Well, Kathy Kudish, I’ve really enjoyed talking with you, and thanks for appearing on our last episode of Aiming to Inform for this year.
Kathy Kudish 13:05
Thank you. You as well, Brent.