iP Newbe

Georgetown-bound: New challenge for 'post-9/11' IP

Bringing a public health view to IP

Sometimes you have to work fast to keep up with a new infection preventionist in career transition.

Angela Vassallo

When we reached Angela Vassallo, MPH, she was driving away from her last day of work. She was leaving Methodist Charlton Medical Center — a relatively small 200-bed facility in Dallas — and getting ready to report to her new job as an IP at a major teaching hospital: Georgetown University in Washington, DC. As she was heading for a quick family visit, we did the interview by cell phone, the same one her grandfather used to take the accompanying picture for this article.

"Georgetown — it seemed almost intimidating but exciting at the same time," Vassallo says. "But I thought they're building a new department, they want new people — let me try. It's turned out to be a perfect fit."

With a background in public health and clinical research, Vassallo worked a year-and–a-half as an IP at Methodist Charlton. Having done a little bit of everything, she leaves with a well-rounded wealth of experience.

"I was trained by two IPs who have been in this field for many years and are national leaders at APIC," she explains. "I learned from them that this profession has had many changes, but it is at a more important and critical phase right now than it's ever been. My move into this career and my [new job] at Georgetown is serendipitous because this really is an important time to be working in infection prevention."

Vassallo is a people person, seeing professional relationships as the way to accomplish team goals. "Of course, learning the basics of microbiology and understanding the guidelines is all very important," she says. "But if you don't have those relationships that knowledge is lost within the hospital. Once I was able to do that then any information I had was well received."

Having previously worked in breast cancer research in a hospital and then as an epidemiologist in the Houston Public Health Department, Vassallo brings an interesting perspective to the field of infection prevention.

"I have noticed that a lot of the newer, younger infection prevention folks have the MPH," she says. "This is a good fit for me because infection prevention is essentially hospital [public health] epidemiology. It's the same principles but focusing just on one building."

'It's very eye-opening'

Extending the analogy, Vassallo says health care epidemiology is like the "micro" version of the macro world of public health. "They look at large populations in large studies and disease groups," she says. "When you are in hospital infection prevention, you may be looking at one nursing unit with 20 beds that has an MRSA concern. It is a very focused population."

If there is anything a bit daunting about the transition, it is not having the clinical training of a nurse or clinician. "[I] haven't put in central lines or done sutures or those kinds of things so learning that information can be intimidating," she says. "Some of the best educational training I have received is in the time I've spent with the nurses and doctors on the floor, watching them literally practice medicine."

Another aspect of Vassallo's public health background that is increasingly relevant to the hospital is training and preparedness for emergencies, mass casualties, and pandemic flu.

"I'm a post-9/11 newbie," she says. "For those of us who have been working in the health care field after 9/11, it has really changed the way we see the hospital environment and safety. It has changed everything for me. I have family in New York City. If 9/11 had not happened, we probably wouldn't pay as much attention to these drills [for mass casualties] and a possible pandemic. I was in Houston at the health department during hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It's very eye-opening."