Person of the Week
Michael Pascucilla: Safeguarding Public Health
East Shore District Health Department (ESDHD) Director Michael “Mike” Pascucilla is helping residents of East Haven, Branford, and North Branford—and beyond—through efforts like the Solar Shark pump-out boat and the district’s Nurturing Families Network child health program. (Photo courtesy of Michael Pascucilla )
As an undergraduate student at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), East Shore District Health Department (ESDHD) Director Michael “Mike” Pascucilla originally thought a career in accounting and business was the right choice for him.
“I took some nutrition classes and it really piqued my interest,” Mike says. “I was on the five-year plan and stayed a little extra at SCSU, focusing on public health.”
The nutrition classes that Mike enrolled in not only altered his career path, but his lifestyle and eating habits.
“When you look at the Western diet, it is not very healthy [as it] is primarily meat based,” he says.
The undergraduate course provided Mike with a fresh perspective, and data, on how he himself wanted to improve and change his eating habits, focusing on more fruits and vegetables.
“When you look at the sum of research…the standard Western diet is not healthy…so I made some changes to my lifestyle with diet and exercise,” Mike says. “I felt better. It helped my mind, my body…I felt more energized.”
Mike graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public health from SCSU in 1992.
His first position after graduation was as a registered sanitarian with the North Central District Health Department in Enfield.
In this role, he inspected different facilities such as food service establishments, daycare centers, and schools to ensure their compliance with the public health code. He also provided various training to help educate and create awareness on different public health issues, among other duties.
In 1999, Mike took a position with the University of Connecticut as an environmental health and safety specialist.
“I relocated with my wife to northern Connecticut and from there I went to the University of Connecticut,” he says. “[A]fter that I went to the City of Hartford, working for their Department of Health & Human Services.”
With a nearly 30-year career in public health and a master’s in public health from the University of Connecticut, Mike brings a wealth of knowledge to his current role as ESDHD chief executive officer and director. His experience is an asset in a field that sometimes requires swift action.
“In the world of public health, every day is different,” Mike says. “There is no traditional day. We could have a fire or flood and have to respond to some kind of emergency [in which] we work with first responders.”
In addition to unexpected situations, Mike and his team focus on ensuring the safety of the communities that the health department serves by enforcing various health codes.
Mike admits, however, “that our first role is not enforcement. That is never our first approach. It’s education and working with our partners in prevention…getting people to do the right thing in the first place, that is the focus of our department.”
Mike and his staff offer a variety of different health education programs including seminars on exercise, diabetes, and how to make lifestyle changes to improve health. They also offer a travel clinic, providing vaccines for those being exposed to different communicable diseases in their excursions abroad.
A program that Mike says is “unique to a health department like ours is our maternal child health program.”
For this Nurturing Families Network initiative, a team of five people at ESDHD works with young families in need to help ensure their health and wellbeing by purchasing infant supplies and providing resources and counseling when appropriate.
A grant-funded program, approximately 45 families within New Haven County have been served by this program to date.
Another aspect of Mike’s work that he finds fulfilling is working with students. He does so through ESDHD’s internship program and as a lecturer with Yale University’s School of Public Health and adjunct professor at SCSU.
“I find teaching very rewarding,” Mike says. “Quite honestly, I don’t do it for extra income, I do it because I really enjoy it.
“When you sit across from students, they bring a fresh perspective on life. They force us all to embrace the latest technologies…What I find is that I offer them my many years of experience, but I learn from them, too. It’s a two-way street,” he adds.
One example of how students are involved with different projects at ESDHD is a solar-powered sewage pump-out vessel project. The pump-out boat, unveiled last fall, runs on electricity powered from solar panels on its roof and is the first of its kind in the nation.
The initiative, which was a collaboration among ESDHD, state and federal environmental groups, the town of Branford, and Pilots Point Marina, solicited the help of students from Yale and SCSU, who conducted research for the project.
Students at Tuttle Elementary School also won a naming contest for the boat, dubbing it Solar Shark.
For Mike, the project was an important undertaking to help combat climate change, an issue that is important to him.
“With climate change, it’s no secret our planet is in trouble,” Mike says. “Research around the world would agree that climate change is going to be one of the biggest issues we face as mankind.”
Mike suggests that reducing consumption of goods, eating less meat, and using public transportation are ways that individuals can help alleviate the burden on our planet.
Along with analyzing the affect that climate change could have on overall human health, Mike has conducted research and published several reports on water quality, among other issues. He also serves on numerous boards and councils including the Connecticut Association of Directors of Health, Inc. and the Connecticut Public Health Association.
His involvement is a way for Mike and other leaders in his field to “get together and share common values on how we can collectively improve local health across the state,” he says.
One area in which Mike has taken a keen interest and aims to create greater awareness around nationally is food allergies. In fact, he will be attending an upcoming conference in which he, and others on a national food allergen committee, will propose changes to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code.
These changes would enhance training, improve the labeling of items on menus and increase communications in restaurants around different allergens.
Mike’s motivation to improve the wellbeing and health of individuals and families in the local community, regionally and nationally, stems from a conviction that “it’s not just a job. I wouldn’t even call it a career. I would call it my calling,” he says.
“When I look at my personal and professional life, I have to acknowledge that I didn’t do this myself. I had lots of support from my wife and children…along with my staff and board of directors. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their support,” he adds.