A passion for helping women: Elementary school experience points Gretchen Hong to a career path in health care

Gretchen Hong is an adult medicine and women’s health specialist at UnityPoint Clinic Women’s Health in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: Nicki Kohl

Gretchen Hong is an adult medicine and women’s health specialist at UnityPoint Clinic Women’s Health in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: Nicki Kohl

Gretchen Hong is an adult medicine and women’s health specialist at UnityPoint Clinic Women’s Health in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: Nicki Kohl

Gretchen Hong knew from an early age that she wanted to do something in the field of health care — and that she wanted a large scope of her focus to be on women’s health.

“I was in third grade, and it was career day at Hoover Elementary School,” Hong said, as if the experience occurred only yesterday. “The parent of one of the students came in and put a stethoscope around my neck. I could hear the lungs and the heart. I said, ‘What else is going on in there?’ I was hooked. It was a very novel and very memorable moment for me that sparked my curiosity.”

As she grew, the fascination with health care followed her in helping care for her mother who suffered from migraines.

“I learned about putting a wash cloth on her head and keeping the room dark and quiet,” Hong said. “I have a deep need to help people.”

Since then, the 40-year-old Dubuque native full of genuine enthusiasm and an ever-present interest in learning more has crafted a career out of doing just that.

For the past five years, Hong has served as an adult medicine and women’s health specialist at UnityPoint Clinic Women’s Health in Dubuque. She performs gynecology services, in addition to offering follow-up for abnormal examinations and test results.

As a primary care provider, she also visits with patients for annual physicals, along with providing treatment for chronic and acute conditions.

“My big passion is serving women in whatever they need, whether it’s dealing with chronic illness, preventative screenings and physicals, or offering advice,” Hong said. “I just want to help them make their health and their lives easier so they can be at their best.”

A graduate of Dubuque Hempstead High School, Hong pursued her undergraduate studies in biology and Spanish (“I just loved Spanish and couldn’t say no,” she said, with a laugh) at the University of Iowa before relocated to New York to earn her master’s degree in nursing from Columbia University School of Nursing.

There, she was able to embark upon a dual program that was catered to her interests, emphasizing primary care and women’s health and graduating from both boards in 2009 and 2015.

“The primary care aspect was important to me because I didn’t want to be limited in what I could offer,” Hong said. “I wanted to be able to take care of women and support that community as much as I could.”

Hong is a member of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners and Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing. She has been honored on numerous occasions for her excellence as a nurse practitioner.

She also is pursuing her doctoral studies at Clarke University in Dubuque, where she is diving even further into researching various aspects of women’s health.

It’s a happy coincidence, Hong said, that she landed in her hometown. The single mom of two — Caden, 8; and Elise, 5 — credits a “village” of friends and family, including her parents, with helping her succeed in her career, in parenthood and in her day-to-day life.

“There often is this idea that women have to shoulder it all and without breaking,” Hong said. “You can do it all. But lean on your village to help you.”

This is key, particularly in the face of an ongoing pandemic that has upended life as it once was known, Hong added.

“Stress and anxiety are the things that have popped up most for women across all of the generations,” she said. “For women in high school and college, it’s the change to online learning. For women working from home, it’s adapting and often home schooling or caring for a parent or extended family member who is more vulnerable. For the next generation beyond that, it’s the isolation, despite thankfully living in a world where technology can help keep us connected.

“Dealing with stress is different for everyone. Maybe that’s something as simple as a hot shower or getting some fresh air by taking a walk or going out on a hike. You have to find what works best for you to keep you centered and grounded.”

In addition to managing stress, Hong also emphasized making preventative measures a practice such as mammograms (recommended to begin at age 40 to 50 and continue once per year, depending on your health, family history and risk factors) PAP smears (recommended to begin at age 21 and continue every three years) and regular physical examinations.

“Having a good relationship with your health care provider is beneficial, as well as having those important conversations early with your health care provider,” she said. “Preventative care really does do a good job in catching things early.”

In addition to a busy career in health care, Hong also is a Cub Scouts leader for the Wolf and Lion dens, which gives her an opportunity to embrace time outdoors.

“It’s great to get out hiking and staying healthy,” she said. “We’ve also adopted an area at Bergfeld Pond that we go out twice a year to clean up.”

Hong also enjoys soaking in the time spent with her family.

“It’s so much fun,” she said. “Dubuque is such a great area to raise kids, and they are really growing up having the best childhood. My dad — their “Papa” — is an engineer, so they get to go with him sometimes, play in the sand and collect toads. With Grandma, they get to do crafts and create Christmas ornaments. It’s a unique experience for them, and that’s what I think I appreciate about what we have gained from COVID-19 — these alternative opportunities to learn.”

That extends to Hong’s patients as well.

“It’s rewarding and an honor,” she said. “Them allowing me to help them helps me. It creates a great cycle.”

Megan Gloss writes for the Telegraph Herald.

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