Nursing professor prioritizes community health

Adelita Cantu, PhD, RN, FAAN, is no stranger to media coverage in her hometown of San Antonio. As a UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Health Systems, she made headlines for being among the first recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine when it became available in Bexar County in December 2020. By rolling up her sleeve, Cantu served as an example to the community about the safety of the vaccine and its importance for controlling spread of the virus and for saving lives.

For decades, Cantu has been an advocate on a range of public health issues, from exercise for kids and seniors to nutrition and food security to the need for good air quality and clean water. “Passionate and compassionate” is how one School of Nursing graduate student described Cantu in her letter nominating Cantu for her 2016 Teaching Excellence Award.

In fact, public health education and intervention in health disparity concerns within poor communities in particular have been at the forefront of Cantu’s personal and professional involvement since the beginning of her career, as detailed in the recent San Antonio Express-News “SA Lights 2022” profile, published July 8. Below is an excerpt of that profile.

A profile in passion and compassion

The following is excerpted from “Adelita Cantu won’t stop pushing for public health” (subscription required to read the full profile).

An image from decades ago of a teenage mother and her sick newborn is imprinted in Adelita Cantu’s mind.

It was the 1980s, and Cantu was in her early 20s, fresh out of nursing school and working as a public health nurse at the health department in Waco — nearly 200 miles from her hometown of San Antonio. She and the rest of the public health team routinely received referrals from the two city hospitals regarding new mothers who couldn’t afford postnatal care. They’d do home visits to ensure each child received immunizations and the like.

In one case, a baby named Jonathan didn’t look right. His coloring seemed off, and he was having trouble feeding. For months, Cantu visited the mother and baby, and on one visit brought a pediatrician to examine Jonathan for free. But the baby died, and the grief-stricken mother stayed in touch with Cantu. When her family said she was visiting the grave too frequently for a baby who died at less than 1 year old, Cantu told her that it was not only OK to grieve as she did but that it was important.

“That was really the moment, my springboard, to really understand that I have the potential to really have an impact,” Cantu said. “It was such a tragic event for everyone, but it also built up some confidence in myself that I could do this.”

Cantu has devoted her life to public health. In San Antonio, she gets out in the community, knocking on doors, passing out flyers and attending public events. Rather than stay stationed at a hospital or clinic, Cantu likes to work with people where they live to promote health education, discuss options and make a difference where it matters most.

Now 67, Cantu has not slowed.

She’s been at the UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing for more than 20 years, researching and teaching public health, nursing and the social determinants of health, particularly the impact of environmental health on communities. She is a member of the Alliance of Nurses for Health Environments and vice chair for both CPS Energy’s rate advisory committee and the city of San Antonio’s climate equity advisory committee.

Cantu recently conducted a simulation for her summer nursing students designed to show them what it’s like to live below the poverty line in the United States. Such exercises, she believes, can help improve the future.

“There is a movement for public health out there,” she said. “We just have to keep moving it forward.” …

Beyond health 

For the past 20 years, Cantu has been at UT Health San Antonio. She received her doctorate in 2006 and continued to teach and conduct research at the university level.

Over time, her role in the community grew. Since 2003, Cantu has joined 13 community groups, mentored students outside the classroom, sat on numerous boards and been a member of five nursing associations.

And for the past decade or so, Cantu has been at the forefront of the environmental justice and health movement in San Antonio. As a member of the Alliance of Nurses for Health Environments, she strives to teach future nurses about environmental health issues, such as climate change, pollution and industry.

Throughout her work in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, environmental health issues were a constant in Cantu’s field. In particular, asthma, lung issues and an increase of allergies among vulnerable communities arose repeatedly. Whether it was from industry or smog from ozone pollution, Cantu saw how the environment impacted the health in certain neighborhoods, and how those communities had less access to health care and more stresses of everyday life.

“As a nurse, my job is to note the problem and then see what are the causes,” Cantu said, “and how we can resolve it.”

She was seeing cancer, too. Sometimes, entire families or several neighbors would get the same cancer. In one family, the father got colon cancer and died and then the mother got it.

“You start seeing things in the community that seemingly don’t have any explanation, these random things. And suddenly, you start looking really at the environment,” she said. “Then you start making connections.”

As vice chair for the city’s climate equity committee and CPS’ rate advisory committee, these are examples she often thinks about and raises. She has presented to her colleagues on the committees how a coal plant can affect nearby health in populations. Perhaps it is not a direct link. Perhaps it’s cumulative with other social determinants, such as income or health care, but breathing in coal dust certainly does not help, she said.

Getting tougher environmental regulations for CPS Energy’s coal-fired J.K. Spruce Plant is not Cantu’s only public health goal, but it’s a big one to which she’s dedicated a lot of time.

In the past, Cantu said, she got frustrated with the pace of public health. But now, she sees that it doesn’t help. Instead, it’s all about cooperating and listening to other opinions and maybe finding a middle ground.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Cantu said public health is on people’s minds more than ever, and there’s more work to be done. She’s hopeful. Her students — whom she’s teaching population health, the social determinants of health and environmental consequences — will be the world’s new health leaders, perhaps sitting on their own committees and pushing for change in their own neighborhoods.

Cantu was the first to get the COVID-19 vaccine in San Antonio. Members of media crowded her as she received that dose in December 2020. And while the occasion was momentous, it was after the media left that it really mattered.

“Community members came up to me later, told me they were going to get the shot because I did,” she said. “Because they already knew me, from being out in their neighborhood, talking with them, building a relationship.”

And that, Cantu said, is public health.

Elena Bruess writes for the Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

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