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Thompson named Minnesota's 'immunization champion' by CDC

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Mary Thompson is a Houston County Public Health nurse who is being honored for her work with immunizations
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About a decade ago, Mary Thompson left her job as a critical care nurse in northern Minnesota with intentions of retiring in the scenic bluff country of Caledonia. Last week, she was one of 50 nurses across the country recognized as a CDC Childhood Immunization Champion.

Quite the turn of events for someone who's tried to retire twice in the last 11 years, right?

Thompson, 69, initially joined Houston County Public Health simply to meet people and make new friends. That goal quickly grew in scope as her attention turned from treating life-threatening ailments to preventing them.

Thompson's diligent and creative awareness-raising efforts prompted Houston County Public Health Director Mary Marchel to nominate her for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 's annual award. Last Tuesday, two representatives from the Minnesota Department of Health recognized Thompson as Minnesota's immunization champion at a Houston County Board meeting.

"It kind of validates that what I've done is appreciated," Thompson said. "I've been a nurse for a long time, over 40 years. Most people who feel good about nursing feel good for the people they've helped.

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"If you're doing a good job, it means you're making a difference in people's lives. I feel good intrinsically, but to be recognized by your peers … it's always nice to have someone pat you on your back."

The numbers back up Houston County's success with childhood immunizations. According to the MDH's most recent numbers, nearly 80 percent of children in the rural county are up to date on their shots. That's one of the highest numbers in the state, often times at least 10 percent higher than other counties.

Thompson's taken the typical steps of strengthening local partnerships with schools and clinics to raise awareness about immunization, but she's also blazed a new trail. MDH highlighted her unusual — and potentially unique — idea of setting up a booth at the county fair where families could check their immunization records while munching on funnel cakes and deep fried pickles.

"Mary knows the devastation these diseases can cause and works hard to improve immunization rates for everyone she comes in contact with," Marchel said. "She is an inspiration to everyone she works with and is a true immunization champion."

Thompson's career started out on a much different track while working in Bagley and Bemidji — but she's quite familiar with creating successful partnerships. For example, she worked "shoulder to shoulder" with other medical experts while treating those afflicted with various illnesses when the Iron Curtain collapsed and people fled west after the Cold War ended in 1991.

That commitment to her craft included 15 trips to Russia.

"I got to see first-hand what it was like for people without good immunizations," Thompson said.

While the recent award recognized Thompson's work with children, the experience in Russia helped her understand the important of immunization for people of all ages. Houston County recently received a MDH grant to help the elderly stay up to date, and she's also created social media accounts in hopes of connecting with Millennials.

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As Thompson prepares to retire at the end of the year — for real this time — she appreciates that her career has come full circle.

"Public health is about prevention," Thompson said. "I spent 30 years in the hospital taking care of acute everything. I thought it'd be nice at the end of my career trying to keep people out of the hospital."

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Mary Thompson is a Houston County Public Health nurse who is being honored for her work with immunizations.

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