Woman of the Year: Mary Rose Corrigan

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been a few changes in the life of Mary Rose Corrigan.

“I highly value in-person conversations with people I run into — especially those I haven’t seen in person in a long time,” she said. “I rely on others’ expertise and assistance even more than previously. I make faster decisions. I check credible public health sources daily.”

It also doesn’t take much to entertain her, she confessed — in addition to no longer taking cream in her coffee.

“I’m not sure how that happened,” Corrigan said. “It’s also not a big deal if I wear my shirt inside out in public or if I leave the house with two different shoes on or the wrong shoes altogether.”

Since 1985, the health of the Dubuque community has been front and center for Corrigan, 58. She began her work in the City of Dubuque’s health services department before settling in as the public health specialist in 1989.

Since then, Corrigan has tackled everything from environmental health to community preparedness and pandemics.

Among those, of course, has been COVID-19 — a moment when Corrigan went from a public health official that perhaps not everyone knew to a familiar face through her daily video updates, which took place at the height of the pandemic.

“It has been an education,” she said of COVID-19. “You’re always working on preparedness, but when it became clear in February 2020 that this was going to spread, everything changed. You wanted to equip people with as many tools and as much knowledge about the situation as possible — maybe even more than what you think they needed, because it’s important to remember that public health isn’t just about the health of an individual. It’s about the health of a community.”

A Dubuque native and graduate of Wahlert Catholic High School, Corrigan found an interest in health taking hold through nursing.

“My mom was a nurse,” Corrigan said. “When I started to take an interest, she said to me, ‘You won’t be in a hospital for long.’”

That proved true.

After stints outside of the Midwest, Corrigan ultimately continued to tend to her roots, pursuing her bachelor of science degree in nursing at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before furthering her studies with a master of science degree in nursing at Clarke University in Dubuque.

It was while preparing for her final board exams that she joined the City of Dubuque’s health services department in what was supposed to have been a temporary position.

“Things were structured a little differently back then, and the focus was more on environmental health and inspections,” Corrigan said. “Someone in the health department was set to retire. There was an opportunity to come on board, and I said, ‘OK.’ I was studying for my boards at the same time as the city hiring process. I was young and naïve.”

But despite not anticipating she’d remain in Dubuque, Corrigan admitted she developed a rekindled fondness for her hometown.

“I liked Dubuque, and I liked what I was doing,” she said. “Dubuque has come such a long way. For me as young person, we didn’t have things like the river walk, the trails and all of the great festivals and events we have here now.”

Only four years later, Corrigan moved into the role of public health specialist. And upon the appointment of Mike Van Milligen as city manager in 1993, the health services department saw a restructure.

In addition to managing that department, throughout her career, Corrigan has implemented public health programs and services, in addition to initiating public health policies.

She was the driving force behind the Crescent Community Health Center, for which she is a founding member and past chairman of its board of directors.

“That’s something I’m very proud of,” Corrigan said of the Dubuque center. “There was such a need for that in the community, and it was extremely gratifying to get that off the ground.”

She established inspection programs for Dubuque’s swimming pools and spas, tattoo and tanning facilities, and retail food, as well as programs encompassing childhood lead poisoning prevention, encephalitis surveillance, HIV/AIDS case management, urban deer management and Green and Healthy Homes.

Since 2001, Corrigan has been involved with community emergency preparedness education, including pandemic influenza planning. She has served on multiple organization boards, including as chairman of the University of Iowa College of Public Health Board of Advisors and the Clarke University Board of Trustees.

She also mentors nursing and public health students as part of internship opportunities.

Van Milligen described Corrigan as a collaborative and pragmatic leader, as well as a passionate advocate.

“She has tremendous public health knowledge but always listens to others and does not hesitate to seek advice from those who may have more expertise than her in certain subject areas,” he said. “Her leadership roles throughout her career have earned her the respect of many, which made her a trusted voice in conveying critical information and expert advice to local elected officials and health care and community leaders, as well as the general public.”

Corrigan serves as a leader on the Dubuque County Public Health Incident Management Team, where she has played a pivotal role in the county’s response to COVID-19. She serves as a liaison between local health care providers and schools, as well as city, county and state public health officials. She also was instrumental in establishing and expanding COVID-19 testing capacity and has played a major role in COVID-19 vaccinations in Dubuque County.

“The most challenging part of the job is that you can never let up,” Corrigan said. “But through this role, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people. And I’ve gotten to know who the best people are to rely on for help, resources and support. You need people like that to be successful as a community when you’re in public health.”

Part of that reliance comes from her family.

Corrigan’s husband, Gus Psihoyos, also is with the City of Dubuque, joining its engineering department in 1977 and today, serving as city engineer.

The couple has two sons — Nick, 24; and Louie, 22 — in medical school at the University of Iowa and studying business, respectively.

“Dinner at our house was always very interesting,” she said, with a laugh. “When the boys were little and one of us had to be at a City Council meeting, the other would be home, and sometimes, we’d watch on TV. When it came to things like discussing where to go on the next family vacation, the boys would do things like call roll, make a motion, second, approve.”

Gus also is the brother of Louie Psihoyos, a photographer known for his work in National Geographic and Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker known for “The Cove,” “Racing Extinction” and “The Game Changers.”

An environmentalist and avid vegan, Corrigan said her brother-in-law’s influence plays a big role. Corrigan often can be found cycling, golfing and immersed in nature.

“We eat primarily plant-based, and there definitely is a connection for our care for the health of the environment,” she said.

As COVID-19 continues to pose challenges, Corrigan said she aims to strike a balance.

“I’ve grown in my role,” she said. “And I continue to have opportunities to learn so much and to be a part of a variety of different things and work with a variety of different people. When I’m out riding my bike out in the community in places like the Bee Branch, I look around and think, ‘It takes a village. And I got to be a part of it.’”