When Dr. Colleen Bridger pops up on my computer screen, her curiously shaped earrings immediately catch my eye.
“They’re meant to look like ginkgo biloba leaves,” she says, gently trailing the one on the right.
The medicinal herb seems like an appropriate fashion choice for the interim director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District and the face of the city’s COVID-19 response team.
Before we dive into the interview, I ask how she’s doing.
“I’m hanging in there,” she replies. “This pandemic has just been unlike anything I have ever dealt with.”
Bridger, 52, served as Metro Health director before being promoted to assistant city manager in summer of 2019. When Metro Health Director Dawn Emerick resigned suddenly amid the pandemic, Bridger filled in the role while continuing her work as assistant city manager.
“I don’t want to make this too much about [Emerick],” Bridger says. “There’s already been too much about her. But the thing that I would like to remind everybody is I was leaving.”
After 25 years working in local government, Bridger was counting down the days to the launch of her own business when the resignation happened. Indeed, the letter came three weeks before her scheduled retirement.
Though I sense some dolefulness from Bridger, many San Antonians were relieved that she delayed her departure to help the city battle the biggest public health crisis in more than a century.
As our conversation unfolds, it seems clear that Bridger’s rural upbringing inspired the work ethic that brought her to this point in her life. Raised on her mother’s hobby farm in Michigan, she grew up showing beef cattle, Dorset sheep and the occasional turkey at the 4-H Fair every year. She, her mother, her sister and her mother’s female roommate did all the chores.
“There were no men on this farm,” she says. “We didn’t leave the heavy lifting or the gross stuff to the boys because we had to do everything.”
A planner from the onset, Bridger later used the prize money she earned showing animals to pay for her undergraduate education.
“Growing up on a farm taught me about patience, because you plant things, and then later, you harvest them,” she says. Farm life also taught her that Mother Nature ultimately holds the cards. “You can do things to prepare and try to mitigate some of it, but there are things you can’t do anything about. You have to have a backup plan, and you have to be somewhat Zen about the whole experience, because if not, you’ll drive yourself crazy.”
Bridger’s relationship with the great outdoors continues. She and her mother have an annual tradition of a shared hiking trip. A few years back, they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
“That was pretty cool because my daughter, my mother and I all made it to the highest part of Kilimanjaro. I don’t know how many three generations of women have done that.”
Bridger has managed to balance a demanding career with a contented family life. She and her husband Chuck will soon celebrate 31 years of marriage, and they have two grown children.
Even so, Metro Health faces big challenges, key among them building public trust as it tackles COVID-19.
“I think one of the things that we need to do is recognize that there’s a lot of noise that’s distracting people from the messages that we’re trying to get out,” she says. “Part of the reason for that noise is to undermine trust in government.”
One of the department’s initiatives has been to share “consistent, concise and consolidated messaging,” while partnering with community influencers.
On that subject, I ask what her response is to President Trump’s recently tweeted picture of himself wearing a mask.
“So, the PC answer that I will give you is that I haven’t had a lot of time to look at anybody’s tweets, let alone the president’s tweets,” she says after a lengthy pause. “My less than PC response is pffft.”
As San Antonio lives through a summer like no other, Bridger hopes to see residents become more accustomed to the new normal.
“I think in the beginning, everybody thought that if they just hunkered down and stayed in their houses this virus would go away,” she says. “And what we’ve realized is that that’s not the case. We have to learn to change the way we live so that we can live with this virus, and that means wearing masks every time you’re interacting with other people, that means staying six feet away from other people. If we can learn to change some of those things, then I think we’ll get to the point, when there is a vaccine, we can get to that herd immunity.”
In the meantime, Bridger says leaders can’t afford to waffle when it comes to fighting the pandemic.
“Yo-yo diets don’t work, and yo-yo COVID responses don’t work either,” she cautions.
I ask what makes her happy.
“On Friday, I am driving to Tuscaloosa and seeing my pregnant daughter for the first time since she’s been pregnant, and laying hands on her stomach,” she says. “I have just been looking forward to that for months.”
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