December 15, 2015

Our Thoughts are with San Bernardino

Few callings attract the caliber of professionals we find in public health. The field demands passion and drive from all who devote their lives to it. Working in public health is a privilege. Earlier this month, that distinction came at a high cost.

On Dec. 2, members of the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health in California gathered for a celebration and training when they were attacked. Fourteen individuals, who committed themselves to serving and protecting the public, were assassinated; many more were wounded. A long journey lies ahead for everyone grappling with their staggering loss and terrible injuries.

Like many, rage and grief welled in my heart. And while these feelings are familiar in the fallout of terrible tragedies that occur in our country and around the world, as the president of NACCHO’s foundation, I encountered a first: How do I channel the chaos of my internal emotional world into meaningful language for a large audience. What words could help us comprehend such violence? Or bring comfort to the wounded and the mourning? I am beyond my ken.

Words can help us to know the facts. But understanding the sequence of events does little to mollify our collectively shattered world. As such, we must talk to one another, give our condolences, and reassure our friends, family, and colleagues that the confusion, fear, and outrage we feel is natural, expected, and a potent sign of our uncompromising humanity. Our empathy links us. Even in heartbreak, we find a core value of public health.

We know the victims went to work every day because they cared about the health and safety of their families, their community, and their country. Whether they were environmental specialists, health inspectors, or baristas at the coffee shop at the Inland Regional Center, where the attack took place, they committed themselves to service and to lifting up the most vulnerable.

Four of the dead were recent immigrants. They committed themselves to the health of this country. They joined their colleagues in endeavoring to protect their adopted home and its citizens. Three of them left their places of birth, fleeing from persecution and violence. Hate finally caught up with them. They took their last breaths while serving the people of their new home.

Some were parents—devoted to creating a better world in which their children could grow up. Others were children and spouses—whose loved ones first learned something was horribly wrong when they didn’t call home as they normally would. But they were all devoted to a vision of America as a beacon of compassion. We are committed to that vision as well. We must continue to work towards its fulfillment.

Shannon Johnson’s last words uttered as he embraced one of his colleagues, using his body to shield hers, captures the essence of public health.

An instinctual act to protect.

A rational decision for self-sacrifice.

A belief in someone else’s future.

“I got you.”

Shannon understood the promise of public health. He gave his life for it. We honor the victims by building upon that promise. It binds us to the past. It gives purpose to the present. It is our roadmap to the future.

Paul Yeghiayan
Former President and CEO
The Foundation for the Public’s Health