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Nursing grad works to improve the health of rural Wisconsin communities

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Payton Kaldenberg, who will graduate this month with a nursing degree, worked to help people living in rural areas access information about critical issues that can impact their health.

Growing up in a small community in northern Wisconsin, Payton Kaldenberg knows that people living in rural areas often do not have access to information about critical issues that can impact their health.

Payton Kaldenberg’s research focused on sharing information with small communities about climate and other environmental issues that impact people’s health.

Payton Kaldenberg’s research focused on sharing information with small communities about climate and other environmental issues that impact people’s health.

So, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire nursing major jumped at the chance to be part of a faculty-student research project designed to provide community-focused education to rural communities in western Wisconsin about climate and environmental issues that affect the health of people living in those areas.

“I was able to see firsthand the lack of investment in social determinants of health, such as education and technology, which rural areas tend to experience,” Kaldenberg says of growing up in Crivitz. “Climate and environmental effects on health were not something I heard much about growing up.

“So, I really wanted to share information with communities that lack the knowledge and awareness about such issues. Essentially, I wanted to give back to communities much like the one I grew up in.”

In the spring, Kaldenberg, who will graduate this month with her degree in nursing, received the Gritzmacher Science Education Fellowship award, established by UW-Eau Claire alumna Christine Gritzmacher to support students who perform science education outreach activities.

For her fellowship project, Kaldenberg worked with Dr. Pamela Guthman, assistant professor of nursing, on a project titled, “Climate and Environmental Health: Community Education Aimed at Rural Communities."

People living in rural areas often don’t have established relationships with trusted community health care professionals who are knowledgeable about emerging topics, such as health and climate, Kaldenberg says. She noted that rural areas also often lack funding for education, and broadband and internet access, which limits their awareness and understanding of issues that can impact their health.

“Climate and environmental health issues are not readily understood by rural communities given the challenges around the lack of education, information sharing and technology connectivity, all of which negatively impact their ability to obtain optimal health outcomes,” Kaldenberg says.

To increase awareness in rural areas about climate and health issues, Kaldenberg provided community-targeted education through newspaper articles published in the Courier Sentinel, a trusted local newspaper that serves several small communities in northwestern Wisconsin.

During an eight-week period in June-August, Kaldenberg — with support and guidance from Guthman — researched and wrote research-based newspaper columns that focused on climate and environmental health topics, including extreme heat events; water quality; air pollution and air quality; Lyme disease; soil health; environmental justice; and the role of the nurse in planetary health.

For example, a column on extreme heat events noted data showing an increase in the number of extreme heat-related days in western Wisconsin; potential health issues, like heat stroke, that can result from the extreme heat; and tips for preventing health problems when temperatures rise above normal.

The column focusing on planetary health and nurses stressed the role nurses can and should play in preparing for climate change and its effects on human health at the individual/family, community and population level, as well as the vast knowledge and many skills nurses have that will help them share their expertise and advocate for policy change.

“Payton did a fantastic job on every part of this project,” Guthman says. “Everything from her research to how she communicated the information was very well done. She shared important and much-needed information with the rural communities, helping people see how climate and health intersect.”

Their overall goal is to provide community-focused education to rural populations to inform and raise awareness about climate and environmental health issues affecting their communities, Kaldenberg says. The summer newspaper project, she says, was a first step intended to begin educating and building community awareness about climate change and environmental health issues.

While they do not yet know how much of an impact the community-focused education made directly on the rural community through the eight weeks of published articles, feedback was positive and encouraging, Kaldenberg says.

“I do believe my efforts made a difference,” Kaldenberg says. “Anecdotally, some members of the community said they were better able to understand the relationship of the climate and their asthma.

“Although I do not know how much of an impact I made on the community as a whole, knowing that I helped even one person make a connection that they may have otherwise never made or thought about makes me feel happy and accomplished.”

Hopefully, the information she shared made community members more aware of the climate and environmental issues that affect the health of everyone and that it sparked discussions of climate change and health and well-being, Kaldenberg says.

Kaldenberg says she hopes the project continues, with future efforts aimed at gathering data before and after a community education intervention to assess pre- and post-knowledge and attitudes about climate and environmental health issues.

“The goal is to ready the rural community to embrace change that is more eco-friendly, including transitioning to solar and wind alternatives as the community grasps the understanding that everyone’s health is at risk with climate change,” Kaldenberg says.

Kaldenberg says she was grateful that the Gritzmacher fellowship made it possible for her to be part of a research project that can make a positive difference in lives of rural communities, while also gaining knowledge and skills that will make her a better nurse.

“What I really loved about the project was that while educating others, I, too, was able to learn about climate and environmental health issues,” Kaldenberg says. “I also was able to enhance my knowledge in population health because of this project. I am now better able to communicate with communities, and I have enhanced my communication skills to adapt to different populations.

“I learned so much, and it really brought me out of my comfort zone. It was a very fulfilling project that allowed me to succeed in something other than just my required courses.”

While the research focused on rural communities in western Wisconsin, its impact already has reached far beyond that region. This fall, with support from UW-Eau Claire’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, Kaldenberg presented her project at the National Student Nurses Association Conference. A national nursing blog also has expressed interest in the project.

The research opportunity added to what already had been an extraordinary college experience, Kaldenberg says.

“One of the things that made the biggest impact on me were the professors,” Kaldenberg says of being a Blugold. “There are some of the best people and professors in the nursing program. They truly care about their students, not just as students, but as people and soon-to-be colleagues. Being able to work with such influential and intelligent people has really been one of the best parts about school. They are such compassionate people who are passionate about nursing and their students’ success.”

Guthman is a great example of the dedicated professors who teach nursing, Kaldenberg says.

“She is such a hard-working person who goes out of her way for anyone and everyone,” Kaldenberg says of Guthman. “She has been a wonderful role model and mentor for me, and I owe so much to her during my time here at UWEC. I will always value her knowledge, expertise and compassion for others.”

After Kaldenberg graduates, she will study for the NCLEX-RN exam and begin her nursing career in a hospital in Appleton. She also is working remotely for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, something she hopes to continue to do part time so she can help stop the spread of COVID-19.

She’s eager, Kaldenberg says, to begin her career in a field that has long interested her.

“I always knew I wanted to be in the medical field because I was always fascinated with the human body and how it works, as well as the ability to help and care for others,” Kaldenberg says. “I ultimately chose nursing because of all the different options, avenues and opportunities that it has to offer. Whether it is a particular field, position, schooling, etc., the options are endless.”