OUR NEIGHBORS: Barnum woman turns life experiences into a career of helping others
When Julie Myhre was a young girl, she used to ride her bike all the way into Barnum from her home on Little Hanging Horn Lake in order to participate in sports and Girl Scouts. Little did she know that someday she would be preaching that same thing to others.
Myhre recently became division director for the Office of Statewide Health Improvement Initiatives (OSHII), of which SHIP (Statewide Health Improvement Program) is a key component, promoting safer walking and biking routes to school to help more kids get the physical activity they need to stay healthy.
“We biked a lot,” recalled Myhre of her and her siblings. “My mom started working when I was in the upper elementary grades, so we made sure we got to town on our own. It was just about a mile and three quarters. Most kids today would never do that. With my work now, we’re trying to get that to come back and to say, ‘How can we walk more and bike more instead of just jumping into the car?’”
From the time she was very young, Myhre has held a strong belief in the importance of exercise and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. In fact, she decided early on that she would make it her life’s pursuit.
She was born and raised in Barnum, the fifth of six children — four girls and two boys.
“I was born between the two brothers, and I think that’s what really encouraged me to be sports-minded, because I tried to keep up with the boys,” she said. “I did more things outside and active than my older sisters. I was in seventh grade when Title Nine came to be and girls’ sports became a part of the high school experience. My older sisters were cheerleaders, because at that time that’s what girls did. I was really thankful I had the opportunity to participate in sports.”
Myhre loved basketball and softball and played golf and volleyball as well.
“Those were formative years in girls’ sports for us,” she said. “I always told the girls from Moose Lake that I helped them earn the Triple Crown because we lost to them in every sport and helped them create their dynasty! One time in basketball we held them to the lowest point total they had ever had by trying to control the ball. We didn’t win, but it still felt good. It really taught me a lot about persevering even when it was tough and trying to be the best I could be and trying to work as hard as I could. I didn’t have a lot of standout moments — it’s been much more so watching my kids play.”
It was on the playing field that Myhre learned to be competitive and work hard.
“Being one of six kids, I didn’t like to lose,” she admitted. “I wanted to work really hard and do my best. I think I’m less competitive now, and I’m much more collaborative in the way I do things. During those formative years, however, it was pretty big deal to me. The work ethic was so strong in my family and I appreciated that.”
Though sports were important to Myhre as she was growing up, she had a lot of variety in her activities as well. She participated in school plays, choir, band, 4-H and Girl Scouts and was active in church as well.
“Nowadays, kids usually can’t be in all those things,” she said. “They have to specialize. I was given that gift of being in a variety of different activities, and I think it made me well rounded since it wasn’t just focused on athletics.”
Music was a big part of her family life as well and provided balance to the more active sports she loved.
“My poor mother listened to six kids practice the same piano lessons,” she related. “We had upstairs and downstairs pianos and we all had our own half-hour practice. We all played at least one other instrument as well. I played the French horn, one brother played trombone, another played trumpet, my sister played oboe and another sister played flute and clarinet. I think my parents felt they didn’t have a chance to play instruments when they were young, so it was something they wanted to support in us.”
In fact, Myhre’s parents, Harry and Joyce Solheim, were influential in many other phases of Myhre’s life as well. Her mother had been a public health nurse in Texas, then volunteered providing nursing care to neighbors in Barnum. When the last three of her children were in preschool and early elementary school, they would often go with her as she visited homes to set up insulin syringes, do dressing changes and other nursing-type duties.
“As a kid I was exposed to that early on and really enjoyed it,” Myhre said. “I think for me those experiences were really formative. I’ve always really liked people, and I was just fascinated with health. I’ve always been interested in keeping people as healthy as they could be. Public health to me was at the preventive end of the spectrum. I saw the problems that could happen, and I found I really wanted to intervene further upstream to try to prevent that from happening.”
By the time she graduated from high school, she knew she wanted to go into some form of nursing.
“I had received a microscope for Christmas one year and I thought that really was a neat thing — but then I realized that it would mean looking at slides all the time and I would miss people,” she recalled. “I thought about being a physician at one time, but I decided that being a nurse is kind of the whole package — you can take time with people, teach, practice in any type of setting and there’s some balance with raising a family. Nursing was the sweet spot for me.”
Myhre graduated from high school in 1981 and went to college for the first year and a half at St. Olaf. She married Randy Myhre, also of Barnum, between her sophomore and junior years, and transferred to St. Scholastica, graduating in 1985 in registered nursing and public health.
“At that time there were no nursing positions and work was very hard to find in that field,” she related. “There were a couple of openings at the Moose Lake Regional Treatment Center, which I thought was the last place I wanted to work. When I was in 4-H, I ended up doing some gardens there, and it scared me half to death!” she admitted. “I got a job working with the profoundly developmentally disabled and was there a year and a half. I loved that work, and they did incredible work. People don’t fully appreciate how staff there cared for clients like they were family.”
Myhre knew she needed to get more hands-on nursing experience, however, so she got a job as a “float nurse” at St. Mary’s (now Essentia) in Duluth.
“I would have stayed there, but my perfect position became open — as a staff nurse with Carlton County Public Health,” she said. “That’s what I always wanted to get into, but those jobs were few and far between. People tend to stay in public health once they’re there, so there wasn’t a lot of turnover. Karen Wunderlich was an incredible boss. She allowed me to have all kinds of opportunities and she was always supportive. I found my niche.”
Myhre said what she loved most about her job was the variety. She’d see both prenatal clients and seniors on home visits, do presentations in the classroom and perform physicals at the WIC (Women’s, Infants and Children) clinic. She was there 16 years and went from being a generalist to developing the Maternal Child Health Team.
In the midst of the Myhres’ very busy lives, their first child, Megan, was born in 1990, Sarah came along in 1992, followed by Katie in 1993.
“I had three kids under the age of four, went back to graduate school and my husband was still teaching and coaching basketball,” said Myhre. “I wanted to get a master’s degree in public health, but just not at that time because the only place you could get it was through the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus. Right about then, however, they made it available at the UMD campus.”
In three years of night classes, Myhre was able to earn her masters in nursing with a focus in public health.
“That was really tough,” she recalled. “I would put the kids to bed and do a lot of work in the evenings. Randy was really supportive, but he was also really busy with teaching and coaching. In retrospect, because of the support of my family and others in the community, I was able to get that masters and keep working in the process. I can remember nursing Katie, my youngest, and studying statistics at the same time, which was required to get into the program!”
Careerwise, Myhre began to branch out in the years that followed. She became part of a mobilization project with three female executives who wanted to work more collaboratively on school, hospital and public health issues. During that same time, she also served as the local rural health school coordinator at Mercy Hospital in Moose Lake through the University of Minnesota Medical School, working with medical social workers, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and post-graduate students to help bring them together as a team to provide interdisciplinary care and work on community projects together.
Myhre was then promoted to supervisor of Carlton County Public Health, with Wunderlich serving as director of Human Services.
“Carlton County is a place that supports a lot of innovation,” she said. “I think it really is a unique place to work, and the [County] Board has been very supportive of it.”
In 2001, a position opened up as director of the Community Health Board, and Myhre decided to expand her horizons once again.
“I wasn’t thinking that I wanted to leave, but I thought, ‘Here’s a position that works with all four counties that could be a strong support for the work being done locally. There are so many ways we can work together across the counties to do more,’” said Myhre. “That’s why I decided to give the director’s position a try. I like to take opportunities where I’ll grow, and frankly I knew it would be challenging.”
And indeed, the Board did some very innovative things on Myhre’s watch.
“We built the seven-county Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) and a seven-county breast feeding program and tried to work in a way that hadn’t been done before,” she
Myhre was selected to be a Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellow from 2009-2012, one of 20 nurse executives from across the United States and one of only two from public health.
“I was very focused on public health, and most of my peers were very focused on hospital nursing or academia,” she commented. “It allowed us to come together, and I think I was able to change some misperceptions about public health and vice versa.”
Last year, Myhre noticed a job posting for division director of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Office of Statewide Health Improvement Initiatives, working with programs such as SHIP and tobacco cessation. The first time it posted she didn’t respond, but when it posted a second time, she recalled a statement by the Commissioner of Health, saying, “Local public health has a lot of experience in these programs — someone from local public health should try for it.’”
Myhre decided to throw her hat in the ring.
“I believe in a strong state-local partnership, and I decided if we can support well at the state what happens locally, we can go that much further,” she said. “It was an opportunity to bring
that local perspective to the position, to help strengthen the partnership.”
After a nationwide search and six months of interviews, Myhre was offered the position and began work at the St. Paul office on Jan. 6, supervising a staff of almost 50 people.
“I started out early in life wanting to do prevention of chronic disease, and this is helping people be healthier,” she reflected. “What we try to do is intervene before any kind of condition or pre-condition is in existence. There are challenges with evaluation, with showing we made a difference, but I love to work in communities and engage in populations, so it provides an opportunity to say to a community, ‘What do you want to do? Where do you want to go?’ It’s locally driven, and SHIP provides the support to those local coalitions to make a difference. It’s valuing and investing in the power of community.”
Myhre has learned to practice what she preaches. For the past 20 years she’s had a goiter on her neck and had it checked out every year on doctor’s visits. A year and a half ago a routine test showed abnormal cells that resulted in a diagnosis of thyroid cancer .
“That kinds of rocks your world,” she said. “The surgery to take out the thyroid is pretty complicated. That was kind of a re-examining of what’s important in my life: my faith, my family and my work, which I view as a place to serve, a place to make the world a better place. It made me think about what I was doing and why I was doing it and to prioritize. I was blessed that it was highly treatable.”