Rachel DeMunda was born in Niagara Falls, New York, to a large Catholic, Italian family. Her grandfather and a number of uncles were contractors and house builders, and she could walk through the town knowing that some of those houses were built by her family.
When she was 10 years old, news hit of an environmental disaster in the nearby neighborhood of Love Canal. The canal, used for years as a chemical waste landfill and then simply paved over, began leaching hazardous chemicals — contaminating the groundwater and soil, causing birth defects, and leading to widespread health anomalies in the small, tight-knit community. Excavation of a new school playground uncovered rusting and decaying 55-gallon drums filled with toxic waste.
Love Canal was a galvanizing event for Rachel. "We had family friends who lived in the area on a huge contaminated site," she recalls. She remembers her grandfather heading to the neighborhood to board up and condemn houses, some of which he had built himself. Sometimes there were inches of sludge and noxious chemicals in the basements.
If you want patients who are safe and healthy, you need to have a workplace that is safe and workers who are healthy.
Rachel found the stories heartwrenching. She remembers attending rallies, but she also felt driven to do more to help prevent similar health catastrophes in the future. "I knew at that young age that I really wanted to do something to make people healthy," she says.
That drive is still the impetus for her work. Rachel attributes her internal motivation, in part, to a passion born during the Love Canal crisis. But she also feels an urge, as a lesbian who grew up Catholic, to prove something. Always an overachiever, Rachel felt a calling to make a difference in other people's lives.
That calling found an outlet in college when an internship in worker and environmental safety exposed her to a field that she felt was tailor-made for her. "I really stumbled into something, almost by accident, that became my lifetime passion. I didn't know this career path even existed, but that internship transformed my whole future," she says.
After college, Rachel began working at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, first as a safety officer and later as a director, where she was responsible for the full range of occupational and environmental safety programs. But when she and her partner at the time had children, they worried about Virginia's refusal to allow second-parent adoption for non-carrying lesbian mothers. The lack of legal protection scared them, and so, seeking to define their family for themselves, they moved to Maryland, where laws were already in place to protect the rights of gay and lesbian parents. Rachel worked for Mercy Medical Center and Providence Hospital before coming to Johns Hopkins.
Now, as the director of environmental health and safety at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and the chair of the Executive Leadership Sustainability Council for the Johns Hopkins Health System, Rachel is making sure that the Johns Hopkins hospital campuses are always contributing positively to the health of the communities that they serve.
While others focus on healing the sick, her office is working to try to keep patients who live within the footprint of our institutions healthy from the start. For Rachel, that means constantly keeping an eye on how Johns Hopkins can lessen its environmental impact on the local community. For an institution that is focused on promoting health, it is a natural extension of that mission to advance environmental efforts to improve community health. "For a population like Baltimore that has, say, higher than average rates of asthma, we are taking steps to ensure that the air that comes out of Johns Hopkins facilities is as clean and healthy as possible."
That drive to keep people healthy extends to Johns Hopkins employees as well. "If you want patients who are safe and healthy, you need to have a workplace that is safe and workers who are healthy," says Rachel. An example: "If nurses are dealing with chronic injuries, it can compromise their ability to provide the care needed to make patients healthy," she says.
While Rachel's job has many different facets, they all come back to contributing to a healthy Baltimore. "I really believe that what I do, even on a small-scale level, does have an impact on our local community," she says. And, as she learned back when she was a child, it is only when a community is healthy that the people within it truly have a chance to thrive.