I am a member of the American Public Health Association (APHA), active in the Mental Health Section.  As a new member and early career professional, I went to the APHA Annual Meeting in November 2017 for my Professional Development offered to staff at PRA. Traveling down to Atlanta, I was eager to join the nearly 13,000 attendees at this prominent event.  Upon arrival, eagerness turned into concern.  My hotel was in one location, the Mental Health Section meetings were in another, the plenary sessions another, and still the Food and Nutrition Section (my other membership) meetings were somewhere else…and it was hot outside for walking around all of these places in business casual attire. Still, I did my best to attend as many presentations as possible, looking through options in the APHA Mobile App, saving them to my agenda for the day, and filling my day with learning opportunities.  Despite spending much time seated in sessions, I still managed over 20,000 steps each day.  I was on the move.  I would return to my hotel room in the evening, completely exhausted.  I learned so much, met great people, but I was also overwhelmed and not practicing self-care.

In 2018, I went back to the APHA Annual Meeting, this time in San Diego.  Although I valued my 2017 experience, I knew I needed a game plan for 2018.  I could not afford to feel as drained as I did in Atlanta.  Not only was I an attendee in 2018, but I presented my first APHA Poster for the Food and Nutrition Section, presented my first APHA Oral for the Mental Health Section, and moderated my first panel.  I knew self-care needed to be the priority, rather than hustling to back-to-back events so that I could be my best self during these presentations.  I reminded myself:  Pause.  Eat.  Hydrate.  It’s okay to be late to a session or to leave one early.  It’s okay to have some free time during the day.  It’s okay to have a day that’s not 12 hours of nonstop activity.  I paced myself, and I focused on self-care, and the Annual Meeting was such a different experience.  I attended some amazing sessions, but I also created opportunities for one-on-one check-ins with colleagues and mentors.  I had meaningful meetings with people I otherwise wouldn’t get the face-time with back in New York.  I attended panels that spoke to the work I do at PRA and didn’t feel pressure to attend anything that didn’t particularly resonate. I found sessions of interest in the program and mapped out my day around them, like those featuring Dr. Ben Druss, Dr. Ron Manderscheid, or Margie Walkover, who PRA worked with through SAMHSA’s Program to Achieve Wellness; Jen Elder, a fellow PRA employee, or any Mental Health Section Business Meetings.  I made time to sit and eat lunch outside.  Rather than wait in line for 45 minutes for a coffee at Starbucks in the hotel lobby, I took 45 minutes to take a walk through the Gaslamp and grab a coffee with zero wait time – making sure to move at my own pace and soak up the sunlight.  I was late to the Mental Health Section Meet Up the yacht club – traveling there immediately after a panel session I attended.  I missed the Homelessness Caucus Social Hour, choosing to rehearse my oral presentation and rest up. And, it was all okay. I didn’t have to be everywhere. I paced myself, took care of myself, and created an experience far more enjoyable and significant than my first year.

A coworker also greatly involved with APHA shared with me, “APHA’s meeting is a marathon.”  Treating it – and other large national meetings, like the upcoming National Council conference – like a marathon, not a sprint, can allow for the creation of some amazing opportunities for learning, connection, collaboration, and growth.