For March, we had the privilege of interviewing Derek Hughes MS, RD/ LDN, CSSD, ACSM-EP from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Derek has an extensive educational background and works as a Safety and Wellness Program Manager for first responders through Broward County Sheriff’s Office.
What are your main job duties?
I am tasked with evaluating and addressing safety, wellness, fitness and nutritional behaviors for 5400 first responders at 70 different worksites across the greater Fort Lauderdale area. My role includes a combination of need/risk assessment, employee education, hands-on-training, creating informational materials, program promotion, management of staff, and the coordination of community partners for collaborative initiatives.
What is your educational background and how long have you been an RD? Do you have any additional credentials relevant to your position?
I have a BS in Exercise Science and an MS in Human Nutrition.
I have been an RD/LDN for approximately 3 years, with 23 years in health promotion.
I have received certifications from NSCA (CSCS, CPT), ACSM (EP-C), CrossFit (Level 1 Instructor), CISSN, USATF (L1 Coach), USW (SPC), Cooper Institute (LEFS), O2X Tactical Athlete Performance, AHA (BLS Instructor), Fitness Institute International (CPTS), FDLE (General & Defensive Tactics Instructor), and have gone through training courses from EXOS, YMCA, TSAC, and others.
I began working with first responders in 2006 as BSO’s Fitness Specialist, then became their Nutrition/Wellness Educator funded by their Aetna healthcare after grad school. When I passed my RD exam, I came back full-time to BSO as their Wellness Coordinator before being promoted to an expanded role as Safety & Wellness Program Manager.
What key areas of knowledge/experiences did you need to have before this job?
My current role requires a combination of health evaluation and wellness promotion experience combined with public speaking and professional writing skills. This should be supported by knowledge of nutrition, fitness, and performance enhancement, as well as the ability to perform needs assessments, organizational policy proposals and the vision to orchestrate change in a complex environment.
What are the highs and lows of your position?
Sometimes the red tape and meetings slow down progress, but it is great when we achieve our organizational objectives. The most troubling thing to me is when we occasionally lose a firefighter or law enforcement officer to something that might have been preventable, be it heart attack, suicide, cancer or driving too fast for the road conditions. I love when projects we work on expand to benefit public safety personnel in the states across the nation.
About 60-percent of my current role is desk-side, coordinating wellness promotion events and health screenings, evaluating employee health/safety information, writing articles, marketing fitness challenges, creating presentations and promotional materials, and so forth. About twice a week, I do some kind of employee wellness education (presentation, cooking demo), performance enhancement training, or fitness testing for our first responder groups. A few times per month, I work with community health partners on various projects (collaborative meetings, wellness fair participation, provide lectures, or workshops).
What advice would you share with an RD (or RD2be) that is interested in a similar career path?
Work to build diverse wellness-related knowledge and skills. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of opportunities to in the allied health field that challenge you and force professional growth. Be sure to refer to other healthcare practitioners (psychologists, physicians, specialists) when appropriate.
What is your greatest strength/weakness as a dietitian?
I feel that my breadth of knowledge and ability to communicate in various formats are my strengths. However, the jack of trades is often a master of none. If you cover a wide range of wellness areas, like myself, you may never be the best in any single subject. I feel that I am a generalist, and not an expert in clinical or some other specific areas of dietetics. The beauty of the dietetics field is that there are many different types of needs and positions to suit our unique skill sets.
What are some of your interests outside of work?
I love to stay active, doing a lot of High Intensity Interval Training. I also compete in several USATF Masters/Open track meets each year, and run many 5k events with my school-age daughters for fun. Concern for social injustice has also been driving me to get progressively more involved with community affairs.
What aspect of sports nutrition (or any other area of dietetics) interested you to pursue it as a career?
As an athlete and then exercise physiologist, I was often mesmerized by the ability of the nutritional approach to unlock greater physical development, health outcomes and performance potential. That curiosity led me to pursue a graduate degree in human nutrition and to eventually become a dietitian. As a fitness specialist, I had provided a lot of corporate and community wellness education, which frequently included nutrition information. I also did a lot of lifestyle assessment and recommendation for clients but felt constrained to giving general guidelines, dietary examples, and referring patients with medical issues. Becoming an RD was necessary to bridge that gap in knowledge and scope of practice.
Why have you decided to work with athletes or similar groups?
I find working with “tactical athletes” to be very satisfying, as I get to protect the people who are out there protecting our communities. Improving their fitness and nutrition increases job performance, enhances public perception, and saves lives of first responders and the community we serve.
How do you deal with the daily stresses presented to you in your career?
I like challenges and find routine and monotonous work to be very boring. The moment I begin to get a program running smooth and efficiently, I begin looking for new opportunities to increase my sphere of positive influence, either within the organization or elsewhere in the community.
Prior to getting your credentials, did you have any experience in nutrition (i.e. food service, volunteering, etc.)?
I worked part-time at in a couple of restaurants in high school and volunteered at a nearby hospital for experience with clinical nutrition and foodservice. A private practice dietitian was also kind enough to let me shadow her for a semester during grad school. I had done a tremendous amount of wellness-based lifestyle counseling for “apparently healthy” individuals, referring those with known or suspected disease to appropriate health professionals.
What do you love about your career/job?
I love that I am trusted to assess the need in our employee population and the public safety field at large and address each issue as appropriate. I also enjoy collaborating with experts and researchers from top universities to study knowledge gaps, working with community partners (e.g. DOH, CDC, YMCA, AHA) to improve local and national wellness, and teaming up with working groups (e.g. IAFC, FEMA, DOJ and NIJ) to make our first responders more safe and healthy.
Is there a course you took in undergrad or grad school that has helped you in your current role?
I love to learn, so I enjoyed most of my coursework. I think community nutrition and research methods were both particularly helpful, as much of my work centers around developing an understanding of various issues and addressing them with best practices supported by evidence-based research.
What are some of the unique nutritional considerations you must consider for the group(s) you work with?
I work primarily with law enforcement and detention officers, firefighter/paramedics, and our civilian support staff. Our tactical athletes do end up battling some long fires or responding to intense and extended emergency call-outs in the Florida heat, as well as doing physically demanding training and performance testing in the academy and in-service. Being well hydrated and adequately fueled for these duties is important and starts well before the alarm bells go off. However, sudden cardiac death (MI) is the leading cause of line-of-duty-death (LODD) among firefighters (45% annually) and third leading cause of LODD among officers (behind vehicular accidents and gunshot wounds). As such, I am always working to increase their awareness of proper nutrition, adequate fluid intake, health screening, and the right kinds of fitness training to prepare them for this unique occupational stress.