By Anna Jauhola
As she prepares to exit her nearly 40-year career in public health in Kittson County, Cindy Urbaniak feels the population is already in good hands.
In 1982, Urbaniak began her career in nursing at Kittson Memorial Hospital in Hallock. About half a year later, a position opened with Kittson County Public Health. She wanted more regular hours and the University of North Dakota graduate took the job and never looked back.
“I lived in Stephen at the time so I commuted 30 minutes up here and there were times I’d drive home at night … and I was literally falling asleep in the car,” she said. “One time, I distinctly remember dozing off and waking up and seeing a farm truck coming at me. It was my dad.”
In her switch to public health, she began working at the Kittson County Courthouse in Hallock where she and Val Pietruszewski “did it all” — home health, public health, new babies, home care and more — until 1996. Then Hospital Administrator Rick Failing petitioned the county board to move public health into the hospital facility. The board agreed as long as they took home health with them. So both entities moved into Kittson Memorial in 1997.
In 2002, Urbaniak became public health director after Claudia Nyegaard retired. In 2007, she headed up the newly built assisted living facility. In 2010, Judy Spilde retired as clinic manager, so that fell under her title as well. In 2014, she not only took on the role of CEO of Kittson Healthcare, she also became the nursing home administrator. In 2017, she stepped back from CEO.
“So I’ve done the full gamut. It’s no wonder I’m tired,” she laughed.
Her final day is Friday, July 9.
Over the last year or more, Urbaniak has been working closely with Jeanna Kujava, who was hired as the county school nurse. Kujava has a public health nurse background.
“The beauty of Jeanna is she’s hard public health director experience in North Dakota,” Urbaniak said. “Unbeknownst to her, that was one of the things I’d already had in my head that moved her to the top of being hired as the public health director.”
Although she’s only had a year as school nurse, Kujava said she feels prepared to take on this extensive role. She will remain as school nurse while she takes on the public health director position. She feels being school nurse will enhance her abilities and bring strengths to the public health director role. However, she will give up her duties with River’s Edge Assisted Living and will not take on the nursing home administrator position, like Urbaniak did. CEO Gabe Mooney has obtained his nursing home administrator license and has already assumed that position.
“Not that I’m going to be an expert at everything at any point, but I feel I have some tools I just need to sharpen,” Kujava said. “Working alongside Cindy and watching her and having the opportunity to have an environment where you can ask questions, have a work-life balance, I feel like that’s allowed me to grow and recognize some of my strengths.”
She is looking forward to the variety the position will offer. No two days are alike in public health.
“I love that,” Kujava said.
Urbaniak and Kujava said the last year and a half has been particularly stressful but also a good learning experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. It has shown them, more than ever, how the nursing staff in home health, the clinic, hospital and nursing homes can come together in times of crisis. Everyone has jumped in head first to help with vaccination clinics to ensure a high vaccination rate.
“It’s nice when you are only a staff of one or two people that you’ve got that support behind you to help with that,” Urbaniak said. “Administration was supportive of that too.”
“You need partners and collaborations so you can start pulling together when there’s a need or a program, and you can use all your resources,” Kujava said.
While Urbaniak didn’t quite push Kujava into taking the director position, there was some gentle nudging. However, Kujava said she appreciated Urbaniak’s encouraging and the ability to make the decision on her own.
“I think she wanted me to be comfortable with that — wanting more. I appreciate that sensitivity and the encouragement,” Kujava said. “So I had to really do some soul searching. Am I ready to learn more? Am I ready to keep extending my time here? And I’ve come to the conclusion that, yes, that’s the case.”
She is fully qualified to take on the role with a four-year nursing degree with training in public health curriculum, as well as a public health certificate. She has also had emergency preparedness training. She is looking forward to learning better how a hospital-based public health department works and how the collaborative strengthens the operation. The opportunity came at the right time, too. Kujava has the next six weeks to totally dive into the director position before she has to split her focus back toward her school nurse duties as well.
“I would be kind of bored if the job was flat and even,” she said.
Both women feel confident in taking on their new roles. Urbaniak said although she retired a year later than she planned, she is excited to have a life she doesn’t have to juggle around work. She already has plans of spending more time with her grandchildren. Kujava is looking forward to the challenge of further serving the county as public health director and school nurse.
“I just feel honored to work with Cindy,” Kujava said.
“Well, we’re leaving the county in good hands,” Urbaiak replied.
By Anna Jauhola