Alumna Takes On Public Health Challenges


Friday, August 25, 2017

Jessica Scruggs portrait

In 2006, Jessica Scruggs ’09 moved across the country, from Florida to Oregon, for a fresh start.

Already in her late 20s, Scruggs planned to attend college in Oregon and had her eye on Pacific University’s dental hygiene program even before she left her home state.

Not in her wildest dreams did she imagine that she would someday work as a dental hygienist in a federal women’s prison and then in the highest ranks of the U.S. government as a special assistant to the U.S. surgeon general.

Her experiences in Pacific’s bachelor-level dental hygiene program helped pave the way for her to serve on the front lines of the battle against the country’s opioid crisis — an experience that changed her perspective on her own family’s struggles with substance abuse.

Scruggs grew up in an idyllic setting on Florida’s Gulf Coast, but her childhood was less than ideal. Her mother, Scruggs said, was an “extreme” nonfunctioning alcoholic who died at home when Scruggs was just 16. On a good day, her childhood home was “an empty house full of disarray,” Scruggs said.

As a teen, Scruggs was, by her own account, “as surly as you could imagine,” with “fire-engine red” hair, Doc Martens and a closet full of flannel shirts.

“I rebelled hard,” said Scruggs, who became a teenage mother but still managed to graduate from high school. She married by the time she turned 21.

“Luckily for me,” she said, “my rebellion was against the addiction that is so prevalent in my biological family. I didn’t know what right felt like, but I did know what wrong felt like, and I wasn’t going to go down that path.”

Eventually, Scruggs set her sights on a career as a dental hygienist and packed her bags for Oregon.

“I wanted a new life, something completely different than what Florida had to offer,” she said.

After the move, she landed a job as dental assistant and began applying to dental hygiene programs in the Portland area. She enrolled at Pacific in 2007 and over the next two years got clinical experience in a variety of settings.

“We were not just on the Dental Hygiene Clinic floor,” Scruggs said. “We were all over the state — in Boys & Girls Clubs, children’s hospitals and migrant camps — doing rotations. I got a sense of all the possibilities out there.”

That knowledge served her well after graduation, when she tried working in corporate dentistry and decided it wasn’t a good fit.

“I was successful in private practice, but at the end of the day it didn’t feed my soul,” she said.

Scruggs returned to school, earning a master’s in dental hygiene from Eastern Washington University in the spring of 2013. At EWU, she also worked as a co-director of the dental hygiene program and was an adjunct professor of public health.

“I had a knowledge base about public health, more so than the typical hygienist, because of all my rotations at Pacific,” she said.

Scruggs took the plunge into public health in the fall of 2013, when she landed a job as a dental hygienist at a Federal Correctional Institution for women in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the prison, she worked with a dentist to provide care for some 1,300 inmates, many of whom had never had dental care before.

The job could be stressful, but Scruggs felt as if she was making a real difference in the lives of women whose childhoods were not unlike her own.

“It was one of the most rewarding and challenging jobs I’ve ever had in my life,” said Scruggs, whose responsibilities at the prison grew over time.

By the time she left for a new position, Scruggs was providing patient care, managing the prison’s dental clinic and helping to run the medical department. 

“A lot of [the inmates] had backgrounds that were similar to mine. It was a relatable population,” said Scruggs, who worked at the prison for three years before landing a job as a special assistant to the U.S. surgeon general.

How did she pull off such a bold career move? Scruggs says volunteer work helped to pave the way.

While working at the federal prison, she volunteered with the Office of the Surgeon General, helping coordinate and facilitate the surgeon general’s visits to the Bay Area.

In September 2015, she joined the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. and went on to receive a number of awards during her two years with the federal uniformed service. The Public Health Service is overseen by the surgeon general. Its commissioned officers work on the front lines of public health, fighting disease, conducting research and caring for patients in underserved communities. 

“I believed in what he was working on,” said Scruggs, referring to former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, a physician who made substance abuse and the dangers of e-cigarettes to young people his top priorities. Murthy was appointed by President Obama and resigned in April 2017, before the end of his four-year term, after President Trump took office.

In 2016, Murthy issued a landmark report on addiction in America that not only quantified the problem, but explored the science of addiction.

Among other things, the report called for a cultural shift in our view of addiction, which can change the circuitry of the brain. Murthy urged Americans not to see it as a moral failing, but as a chronic illness that should be treated as such.

As one of two special assistants to Murthy, Scruggs traveled extensively, crisscrossing the country to listen to stories about addiction. Along the way, her own perspective began to shift.

Initially, “it was very difficult for me not to see addiction as a character flaw,” said Scruggs, explaining that her views were shaped by her traumatic childhood. “My mother chose [alcohol] over me: That’s how I saw it.”

Her thinking evolved after she came to understand the science of addiction.

“We know that diabetes and heart disease are chronic, lifelong diseases. So is addiction; we just don’t treat it that way,” Scruggs said.

Today, Scruggs still works closely with Murthy, as the operations director for his latest venture, a nonprofit startup that promotes emotional health. Problems such as addiction, obesity and even gun violence are closely tied to “the emotional sickness of our nation,” said Scruggs, adding that her new job is another opportunity to effect change on a broad level.

“When opportunities arise,” she said, “I take them.”

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