Heather Santos Pangelinan was recently appointed director of Population Health Services at the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., but she already has eight years of work experience at the hospital in her bag, making her know the needs of the community more than any other person.
“I am a daughter of the CNMI, a product of the CNMI, just like my mother was and her mother before her. My three children are children of the CNMI and my life experiences and roles as a mother, daughter, wife, sister, and friend is what drives me on a daily basis to get up and do work to make things better,” she said. “At the end of the day, the CNMI is our home, the home for my children and, while there are many challenges faced by the CNMI, I am resolved to never settle for less than what our people deserve. So, when I am told ‘No, that can’t work here’ or ‘No, that’s not available for the CNMI,’ I work to figure out and to make it happen and to give the people the services they deserve.”
Pangelinan is directly involved in WIC [a supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children], family planning, immunization program and many more that are at the heart of every household in the CNMI.
As the director for Population Health Services, her major responsibility is directing the operations of population-based programs and services for the CHCC. These include programs that screen for cancer and provide vaccinations to prevent the introduction and spread of vaccine-preventable diseases within our CNMI, she said.
Her section runs programs that provide access to prenatal care and well-child care; home visiting programs for pregnant women and infants; programs that support community members to quit tobacco use; screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis; nutrition and breastfeeding support programs; teen pregnancy prevention programs, and others.
A big part of her work is being in constant communication with agencies such the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Health Resources Services Administration on projects to promote and improve health and wellness for the CNMI community and families.
“Over the years I’ve worked to foster relationships and establish partnerships across our local systems that serve our community and CNMI families. I am continuously meeting with doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers as well as patients and community members as part of CHCC’s efforts for ensuring that we are consistently assessing and addressing the health needs of our CNMI community,” Pangelinan said. “I work closely with our CHCC managers and leaders on implementing strategies and making improvement to current programs to ensure that our organization is moving [in a] direction that meets our community needs. …While my work now requires that I spend more time behind the scenes, I make it a point every once in a while to take part in CHCC events that would allow me to interact with my community.”
According to Pangelinan, her work is more at the hospital but, from time to time, we can catch her at an outreach event providing free blood pressure checks or glucose screening, knocking on doors to offer vaccination during village vaccination campaigns, or on the phone calling community members for appointment reminders. “It is important for me and motivating to be able to connect with the beneficiaries of our services. …Work in public health is challenging and never-ending and these past couple of years during the pandemic has definitely taught me a lot. However, I think some the greatest lessons I’ve learned and that have contributed to my professional career come from local women,” she said.
For example, Pangelinan cites the former director for Public Health, Margarita Torres Aldan, and the CHCC chief executive officers Esther Muña, for being her mentors who have set examples “for me and many other local women on what it means to be a leader in the community. I learned and continue to learn so much from these women leaders. Probably the most influential woman who has helped to shape my career path is my mother, who by example has taught me courage, persistence, humility, compassion, and true grit in any situation and in all that I do. All these lessons I use to guide the work I do for our CNMI families.”
Aside from her work at CHCC, Pangelinan serves at the Interagency Coordinating Council, a body that works directly with the Early Intervention Program. She also serves as a member on the CNMI Developmental Disabilities Council.
National organizations she belong include the Association for Maternal Child Health Programs and Association for Immunization Managers. “I use my membership in these organizations to learn about new and innovative, evidence-based practices that we can use here in the CNMI. But I think, more importantly, I use these groups as a national stage to bring attention and focus on the national level to the CNMI,” she said.
“At annual AMCHP meetings, for example, I use the opportunity to meet with leaders from the Health Resources and Services Administration to discuss the challenges around health and healthcare for our CNMI women, children and families and engage them in helping us to identify and implement solutions to some of our unique challenges,” she added.
Pangelinan said the team of professionals that she works with motivates and inspire her. “It truly is a rewarding experience to be able to work with a group of motivated and compassionate individuals who are always willing to take risks with me and try new and innovative ideas. …My goals for the first six months of this year include completing an updated CHCC Population Health Strategic Plan to guide the work we do for the next three years, initiate steps toward public health accreditation for our organization and, in partnership with our clinical providers, implement mobile clinic services in villages throughout the CNMI,” she said.
“It is my hope that people I work with focus on what ‘can be’ and not be deterred by ‘what is’ or challenges that we may encounter. There is always room for growth and improvement and I hope that those I work with are motivated to continue working toward improvement and not be complacent. It is my hope that those I work with continue to do this work with compassion and kindness.”