Honoring a healthy passion

The U honored alumna and Mpls. Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant last week.

Commissioner of the Minneapolis Health Department Gretchen Musicant received the Gaylord W. Anderson Leadership Award from the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health earlier this month.

Commissioner of the Minneapolis Health Department Gretchen Musicant received the Gaylord W. Anderson Leadership Award from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health earlier this month.

Allison Kronberg

Behind Minneapolis Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant’s unassuming, just-over 5-foot presence is a restless go-getter who has been a driving force behind Minnesota health for decades.

Musicant, an alumna of the University of Minnesota School of Nursing and the School of Public Health, received the Gaylord Anderson Leadership Award last week for her work on state and city public health issues.

Gaylord W. Anderson was the first Dean of the School of Public Health — the school’s most prestigious alumni award is named after him.

“Gretchen is a longtime public health advocate,” School of Public Health alumni relations director Tara Anderson said of the Minneapolis native. “I think she’s a wonderful leader and really knows how to build consensus and use collaboration to solve issues.”

Since getting her master’s degree in public health nursing in 1986, Musicant hasn’t stopped working for more than a couple of months, even during maternity leave.

But she hadn’t always aspired to work in public health.

Musicant received her first undergraduate degree in biology from St. Cloud State University and considered becoming a teacher. But after trying out a job in a nursing home, she learned health-focused jobs fueled her passion.

That passion has endured. In the past 30 years, Musicant has had a career that she describes as many “stumbles in the right direction.”

Many of her past jobs, which have ranged from pediatric nursing to lobbying for public health issues at the Capitol, sprang out of the ties she built in the community. Public health was where she fit, she said, because it incorporated society, politics and health in one job.

Musicant passed those passions on to her son Max Musicant, 30, who said he was knocking on people’s doors talking about health and local politics before he entered college.

“She is just like everyone else, but she has a responsibility to be more than that,” he said.

One of Gretchen Musicant’s first jobs was pediatric nursing at the University. Her patients intimately welcomed her into their lives, she said, whether it was to assess everyday symptoms or help a family overcome a child’s illness.

These days, she is welcomed into a much larger cultural and geographic community — the city of Minneapolis — to solve problems as a public official, speaker and listener.

Since she began as commissioner in 2005, Minneapolis teen pregnancy was reduced nearly in half in a five-year period, child violence dropped dramatically and lead poisoning fell by 80 percent since 2002. Her department has confronted a wide range of issues, including teen violence and environmental health disparities.

But it wasn’t a smooth road to the job, she said.

In 1999, Musicant’s husband died of kidney cancer after living with the disease for five years. She continued with her career but dedicated her efforts to parenting Max, who was 15 at the time.

“I think having someone die gives you a sense of the preciousness of each day, and if you want to accomplish things, you might as well try to do them right now,” she said. “I think it gave me, as a professional, kind of a special kind of urgency.”

Musicant’s coworkers agree that her professional determination is evident.

“Gretchen’s very forthright in her opinions,” said Minnesota Council of Health Plans director Janny Brust, who has served on different committees with Musicant for more than 20 years. “In my view, that’s a good thing because you know her opinion and then you can either agree or disagree.”

She has a unique ability, Brust said, to make public health issues understandable to everyone inside and out of the health community.

“I understand that processes are necessary sometimes to get people lined up and thinking in the same direction, and I believe in that, but I’m also anxious to get busy addressing pressing problems,” Musicant said.

Keeping her alma mater in mind

Musicant remains involved with the University long after her graduation.

“My education, both in the School of Nursing and the School of Public Health, has provided me with such strong foundations that as a student I didn’t fully recognize,” she said. “It gives me frames for almost everything I encounter.”

As a past School of Public Health alumna board chair, Musicant has worked on the school’s advisory committees, written grants with the school’s faculty and mentored students and interns.

In a recent mentoring experience, Brust said, Musicant helped a University graduate student present a complex health topic before a group of health officials.

Musicant treated the student more like a colleague, Brust said, and she offered several thumbs-ups and smiles during the presentation.

Anderson said many of the school’s students go on to work in administrative positions for the city and state department of health.

Students should be interested in their community’s role in health, Musicant said, because health is relative to everyone’s work.

“It’s more clear now than it has been for some time that so many things influence health,” she said, “and whether or not it’s your frame of reference, health is one way to measure how successful we are as a city.”