Emory Report
August 23, 2004
Volume 57, Number 1


Emory Report homepage   >   Current issue front page

August 23, 2004
Van Wilder

By Eric Rangus

Newly hired at Emory (in December) and newly married (in May) Julie Bernath has just cause to reward herself. So, two weeks ago she bought a new car.

“I had my old car for 10 years, and I promised my parents I’d run it into the ground,” said Bernath, wellness coordinator for the Well House’s Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FSAP). She didn’t exactly do that, but after 121,000 miles the time had come for a new ride. The ink hadn’t even dried on the title of her new Honda Accord when two days later Vice President for Human Resources Alice Miller handed Bernath a set of keys to a new Chrysler Town and Country van. “Emory: A Healthy Place To Work” reads the magnetized sign stuck to the window of the pristine white van, which has just 27 miles on the odometer and that unmistakable new-car smell.

“I feel like I just won the Showcase Showdown on ‘The Price Is Right,’” Bernath said, jingling the keys to the new van, which will serve as a centerpiece of Human Resources’ efforts to reach to out to employees in their workplaces.

Since she was hired nine months ago, Bernath has been doing her part to contribute to back up the slogan on the van. With the vast majority of students gone, summers at Emory can be a bit laid back, but not for Bernath. She has been touring the campus, visiting departmental meetings, hosting lunch and learns, and setting up her own presentations on a variety of wellness initiatives. Themes range from good eating habits to demonstrations of yoga exercises people can do for 15 minutes at their desks.

It’s all part of an FSAP effort to work with employees on developing methods to balance their work and home lives. The Worksite Lifestyle Planning Program (as it is currently known, the name may change) is in its pilot stages now, but FSAP hopes to roll it out to a wider audience soon. Currently it consists of a clinic led by Bernath where participants are screened for body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose followed by a session to discuss some of the results. Other education sessions, tailored to the needs of the department, will take place a few months later.

For most of the summer, Bernath and whichever administrative assistant or counselor she could round up would stack scales and blood-pressure cuffs and boxes of brochures and other handouts into her old Saturn for transport to the offices of the people she’d be meeting. “Now, everything goes into the van,” Bernath said. “We are a one-stop, mobile, health and wellness van."

Bernath’s travels are just one aspect of a newer, more personal approach to employee relations. “What we’re trying to do is get into the workplace,” Bernath said. ‘What’s been done in the past is random programming related to national recognition of holidays, like National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”

The old way might have meant an event in October, which is breast cancer awareness month. The new way called for a mailer to be sent out to more than 7,000 women in July advertising a free mammogram day for women employees and spouses of male employees. The response was so overwhelming that offering free mammograms every quarter is in the pipeline.

Not only does Bernath speak to groups, she also meets one on one with faculty and employees. Her Wednesdays, for instance, are devoted to individual nutrition counseling; she sees appointments both at Crawford Long and at the Well House. That’s understandable since Bernath is a registered dietician.

“This position has been great for me because I get to use my counseling skills, not just in telling someone what’s in her food but in helping motivate people to make these changes,” said Bernath, adding that she makes it a point never to question someone’s food choices at the table. She herself splurged for cheeseburger on her birthday (which she ate in middle of the HR building for all to see), but this day her lunch is a good bit healthier—she brown bagged sweet potatoes, fruit, string cheese and yogurt.

“The message that Emory puts out is fantastic,” Bernath said. “People can actually take the time to come here and spend time talking to a counselor and really take control of their health.

“I’ve been surprised by my clients,” Bernath said. “I thought that when word got out that there was a ‘free dietician’ at the Well House, I would be bombarded by the quintessential yo-yo dieters,” she continued, referring to people who bounce from fad diet to fad diet.

“But I have had an amazing variety of clients,” she said. “I have had some people with severe allergies come in and ask questions about food allergies and intolerances. There are others whose physicians are able to educate them to a point about nutrition but they aren’t able to fine-tune it the way a dietician would.”

Her career choice is hardly a whim. “Food has always been an interest of mine,” said Bernath, who worked during her formative years in both restaurants and grocery stores. Bernath even began her undergraduate career studying food marketing in the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia on a scholarship from a major grocery store chain, but gave it up when she decided to go into dietetics.

“When I got into dietetics, I just became more and more interested in nutrition,” she continued. Bernath eventually earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dietetics. “I didn’t care for the illness side of it; I was much more interested in wellness.”

Not wanting to work in a hospital, Bernath instead moved toward nutrition and wellness programming. Shortly after earning her master’s, Bernath was hired by Corporate Sports Unlimited, a company that manages several health clubs including the Blomeyer Health and Fitness Center.

After two years with Corporate Sports, Bernath (who doubles as a clinical nutritionist at Crawford Long) transferred to Emory as its first wellness coordinator—technically, Bernath is employed by Corporate Sports and is a contract employee at Emory.

“My population is more than 20,000 people,” said Bernath, whose services cover faculty and staff not only at the University but throughout all of Emory Healthcare as well. “Whenever I have an idea, I have to think of how it could be implemented in a community this size. We can’t just decide to have a walking group if we’re not prepared to handle 20,000 participants.”

As her professional life has leaped forward, Bernath has some exciting goings on in her personal life as well. She got married in May and honeymooned in Greece, getting out just before the Summer Olympics tourist rush. Husband Max is a hospitalist at Crawford Long. (“He’s a primary care doctor, but not an attending physician,” Bernath said.)

“He’s a much better eater than I am,” Bernath said. “He grew up without sugar cereals or cartoons. I was a Cocoa Puffs/soda-type person. He eats whatever I pack for him, and he has a lot more willpower with desserts than I do.”

Considering the healthy couple’s lines of work, it would make sense if they met somewhere like a hospital or even a health-foods store. That wasn’t the case.

“We met in a bar in Virginia-Highlands, and it was on a pub crawl,” Bernath said with a laugh. “It’s a good story for the kids. We’re excited.”