March is Women's History Month, and we proudly honor alumna Helen Eddy, director of the Polk County Health Department -- one of Iowa’s largest health departments. It is a post that she relishes even in a pandemic.
“There’s no playbook for a pandemic, but we have an excellent team,” said Eddy, who became director of the Polk County Health Department in 2018. “From Day 1, we knew that keeping people healthy would take more than a public health response; it would take a community response.”
When Eddy graduated from the College of Pharmacy in 1982, there were more men in her class than women. Still, she always felt that professors and administrators were eager to help women succeed in pharmacy careers. Right after graduation, Eddy enrolled at Drake University to pursue an MBA. At the time, she wanted to combine her love of management with her love of science.
A job with Eli Lilly and Company quickly led to another with Hy-Vee, first in the Kansas City area, and then back in Iowa. Eddy spent 30 years with the grocery chain and played a significant role in building the company’s pharmacy division, including creating a squad of mobile health clinics that roamed the state, providing pharmacy and health and wellness services to small towns and rural areas.
From Day 1, we knew that keeping people healthy would take more than a public health response; it would take a community response.
During her time with Hy-Vee, Eddy was an early advocate of pharmacy vaccinations. Many of us take it for granted that we can get a flu vaccine at our neighborhood pharmacy, but pharmacists were not always allowed or even trained to administer vaccines. Hy-Vee pharmacists, under Eddy’s leadership, were some of the first in Iowa to administer vaccines.
“At the time, we had to train our pharmacists how to administer vaccines,” said Eddy. “Now, all pharmacy schools include vaccination training in their curriculum. Pharmacists represent a strong and capable network of vaccinators, and we’re seeing the benefit of this network now with the Covid-19 vaccines.”
The mobile health clinics that Eddy jump-started while she was at Hy-Vee will also be used to administer vaccines across the state.
“In my current position, I am leaning on colleagues from Hy-Vee to help get vaccines into the arms of Iowans,” said Eddy. “We are truly collaborating across all sorts of professions and disciplines to do what is best for our community.”
Eddy grew up in Indianola, and it was her mother, a schoolteacher, and a college friend who encouraged her to switch from pre-med to pharmacy. The friend who urged Eddy to go into pharmacy is Jeffrey Reist, clinical associate professor at the College of Pharmacy. The two are still friends today.
“I blame my career on Jeff,” said Eddy, laughing. But it was Reist who pointed out that many of Eddy’s pre-med courses were also requirements for a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy. “He encouraged me to talk with Dean [David] Carew, and that conversation and encouragement from my mother convinced me to switch majors,” said Eddy.
Eddy’s mother always pushed her daughter to take on difficult academic subjects and paid for her to take business courses at Simpson College during her summer breaks from the UI. Eddy jokes that her mother wanted to keep her “out of trouble,” but the business courses are a big reason Eddy received her MBA. She loved learning about marketing, accounting, and management.
There are so many opportunities for women in STEM careers now.
Women of her mother’s generation were limited to jobs in education or nursing, said Eddy. Her mother always encouraged her daughter to take advantage of new opportunities available to young women. Today, Eddy’s mother, who still lives in Indianola, gets a kick out of watching her daughter take on the media during televised press conferences.
“I know that my mother is proud of me. I hear it from friends and family,” said Eddy. “She has given me so much. I am grateful.”
Throughout her career, Eddy has seen more women enter the field of pharmacy. She’s proud of the fact that a majority of her staff at Polk County Health Department are women. And she’s eager for women to take on more leadership and management roles in pharmacy and elsewhere.
“There’s an aspect of giving back to and caring for a community in pharmacy roles that is appealing to women,” said Eddy. “There are so many opportunities for women in STEM careers now, and I think it’s great.”
Looking forward, Eddy hopes that all people will have equal opportunities to thrive in pharmacy or in whatever career they choose. “All people are capable of great achievements, and I hope we as a society will soon nurture every person in the same way that my family, academic mentors and colleagues have nurtured me,” she said. “We are all capable of wonderful things.”