Jennifer Sexton is the unseen hand at work in Charlotte County health care.
You may not know her name, but you’ve heard her voice. She is the public information officer of the Florida Department of Health in Charlotte County. She’s the one who lets media outlets know about everything from the local status of the Zika virus to car-seat classes for parents of young children.
She has another job, one that is outside the scope of public communication but speaks in its own way to the health and welfare of Charlotte County residents. She is the coordinator for the local Community Health Improvement Plan, or CHIP.
A community health improvement plan is a long-term, systematic effort to address public health problems based on the results of community health assessment activities and the community health improvement process.
Ours is called Healthy Charlotte. It’s a community collaborative that includes residents, health care professionals, and organizations vested in making Charlotte County healthy. Drug Free Charlotte County and Healthy Families are two of several organizations that form the cooperative.
“What we’re going to do through Healthy Charlotte is make sure we’re all moving in the same direction with the same message,” Sexton said. “By working together, we’re going to reach more people with the information.”
Healthy Charlotte is involved in everything from smoking cessation to stroke awareness to computer screen overload.
For instance, it coordinated Putting Your Best Fork Forward, a healthy diet seminar that was the focus of a recent Positive Aging Symposium.
Its message for 2019-2020 will focus on ACES — adverse childhood experiences. That covers experiences such as physical and sexual child abuse, parents divorcing and parents going to jail.
“They find that more adverse childhood experience you had, the greater the risk for health problems,” Sexton explained. “And not just the obvious mental health problems. If you were abused as a child, you may have an increased risk of suicide. That makes sense. But you also have an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes and obesity.”
The plan being developed aims to educate Charlotte County residents about that subject.
“We want people to understand it,” Sexton said. “If you were beaten repeatedly as a child, your adrenalin rises. That’s a normal protective factor. But when it happens over and over again, it changes the DNA in your body.
“It changes you.”
They leave their mark.
Sexton, 37, is the mother of two boys, Breman, 18, and Desmond, 9. She and her husband, Christopher, and the boys live in Port Charlotte.
She has been doing health planning for the Florida Health Department for the three years she has been in Charlotte County. Before that, she was a planner for the Health Planning Council of Southwest Florida.
She grew up in Muncie, Indiana, and graduated from Purdue University. She later earned a master’s degree in health communication from Southern New Hampshire University.
She was editor of the school paper and president of the speech team during her high school years in Hoagland, Indiana (pop. 821).
“I took part in speech competitions all four years of high school,” she recalled. I loved it, loved it, loved it. I was not good at it. I was very awkward in front of judges.”
She decided to go a different direction and got involved in radio broadcasting. Here, she did excel.
“With radio broadcasting, you were in a private room with a microphone,” Sexton said. “You didn’t have to see the judges. I actually flourished in the radio broadcast competitions and won multiple ribbons.”
She became aware of health as a possible career pursuit through her own health issues as a youth.
“I was on medication,” she recalled. “At times, it helped. But there were side-effects. I developed insomnia. That was the worst one. I couldn’t sleep.
“I felt like there had to be a better answer. At one point, I quit all my medications cold turkey. I changed my diet, went completely vegan, gave up all animal products.”
She no longer follows a vegan diet. She has learned moderation. But the experiences left their mark.
Sexton went to work at a health food store while attending Purdue.
“I learned a lot about diet and nutrition there,” she said.
She also learned how to help people by sharing information with them and helping them plan.
The key to her job today, she said, is “being aware of emerging issues, being ahead of the game as much as possible.”
It’s called getting a hand up on health issues in Charlotte County. It’s not necessary for that hand to be seen.