Wilkes

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Ruth McDermott-Levy ’82 Studies Health Care for a Changing Planet

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By Koren Wetmore

Ruth McDermott Levy
Ruth McDermott-Levy ’82’s research on health care and the environment often takes her outdoors. She is pictured on the Belmont Plateau near Philadelphia, not far from where she teaches at Villanova University. Photo by Dan Z. Johnson

Ruth McDermott-Levy ’82 arrived in Finland in summer 2018 during the third heatwave in what would become the nation’s hottest year on record. Finland’s average temperatures have already rose 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures — exceeding the 1.5 degree Celsius maximum set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and double that of the rest of the globe.

It was an auspicious start for a scholar who came to discuss the impacts of climate change on patient health.

She soon discovered her subject was new to many nurses in Finland.

“That was surprising, because Finland is way ahead of us on living sustainably,” she says. “Once nurses started talking about environmental health and our changing climate, however, they could see its relationship to their patients and they wanted to learn more.”

While others debate the reality of climate change, McDermott-Levy, associate professor and director of the Center for Global Public Health at Villanova University, is training nurses to discern and address its effects on patients.

Sewing Seeds Early

Early on McDermott-Levy had a passion for the outdoors and an interest in people. When the first Earth Day launched in 1970, she saved all her “nickels and pennies” and bought seedlings for everyone she knew. The experience sparked a curiosity about the connection between people and their environment. Yet she didn’t see how to translate that into a health career.

Her first clue came while studying nursing at Wilkes.

“I took care of people who had black lung disease from working in the mines, and saw patients with health problems related to air quality in their neighborhoods.”

More clues arrived after graduation, when she worked in hospital and home health-care settings. There she saw how environmental exposures contributed to heart and respiratory diseases.

But it wasn’t until her graduate work that things really started to gel. Between earning her master’s degree in nursing in 1996 and her doctorate in 2008, both from Villanova University, McDermott-Levy participated in multiple trips abroad as a Villanova faculty member. She guided students in service projects in Peru and Nicaragua, where she witnessed the impact of poverty and geography on health-care access. Places where, if you needed care, you had to “walk two or more days” to get to services.

She also spent six years serving as academic advisor to Omani nurses studying at Villanova and as an external reviewer for the University of Niswa. The work involved trips to Oman, and led to a visit to the Islamic sultanate and the Omani oil fields.

It was an experience that proved informative when fracking for oil production began in Pennsylvania. “In Oman, the oil fields are far from where people live, so there are only occupational exposures. Here, fracking occurs in a community’s backyard,” she says.

Finding Her Focus

She returned to school in 2013 to pursue her master’s degree in public health, with an emphasis on environmental and global health. As part of her studies, she examined the effects of fracking on the people in northeastern Pennsylvania. She also became the co-chair of the Pennsylvania State Nursing Association’s environmental health committee.

“The health impacts of fracking are awful. As committee co-chair, I had to address those issues. The more I studied fracking and the impact of fossil fuels, it naturally led to the climate change piece.”

Now the activist-scholar uses every tool at her command to educate and equip the next generation of nurses to address the health impacts of climate change.

She co-edited  an open-access ebook, “Environmental Health in Nursing,” published by the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE). She serves as co-chair of the ANHE Education Workgroup and is a member of its fracking and climate change workgroups.

She lectures nationwide, writes articles — she’s currently working on a piece about climate change impacts on older adults with former Wilkes Professor Anne Marie Kolanowski — and continues to do research here and abroad.

Her recent trip to Finland was funded by a 2018 Fulbright-Saastamoinen Foundation Health and Environmental Sciences Award. Her work there included teaching and research related to the impacts of climate change on human health. Her study results will inform the creation of future nursing curricula, including an online course for students at Villanova and the University of Eastern Finland.

Like the seedlings shared in childhood, McDermott-Levy’s efforts carry a promise for the future. “This younger generation thinks differently than we do. My job is to give them the foundation and skills to look critically at the science, and then step out of their way,” she says. “We haven’t found the solutions to these complex problems that affect human health yet. I’m trusting they will.”

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