Manny Montano: Charting a life of service

Manny Montano discusses responding to COVID-19 and leading by example.

Posted on Mar 22, 2023

Manny Montano (center) stands in front of San Xavier del Bac Mission
Manny Montano (center), poses with colleagues from Pima County Health Department and PIH-US in front of San Xavier del Bac Mission (The White Dove of the Desert) on the Tohono O’odham reservation. Photo courtesy of Manny Montano.

When Manny Montano received his first COVID-19 vaccination, he took a selfie and sent it around to colleagues and friends. He knew that if he was encouraging people to get vaccinated, his actions had to match his words. Manny applies this same strategy to foster collaboration and motivate coworkers: lead by example.

Initially hired as a public health nurse with the Pima County Health Department, a PIH-US anchor partner, Manny was only weeks into his job when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He quickly pivoted, serving as Public Safety and Tribal Nations Liaison on the frontlines of Arizona’s COVID-19 response. In this role, Manny supported local, regional, state, and federal public safety agencies and the Pascua Yaqui and Tohono O’odham Tribal Nations with interpreting guidance and developing policies. He also served as a COVID-19 expert to communities across southern Arizona, answering questions on exposure response, testing, quarantine, and vaccination.

Below, we talk with Manny about his journey to public health.

What inspired you to get involved in public health?

I think most people end up where they do by chance. I have a bachelor’s degree in political science; at one point, I thought I might be a lawyer. That did not work out, but I ended up in public safety and emergency management for many years.  I serve as a volunteer EMT within the search and rescue community and when I had a chance to go to nursing school, I jumped at the opportunity. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the accelerated bachelor's of nursing program at the University of Arizona and became a Registered Nurse in 2006. I spent years working in differing specialties: emergency rooms, wound treatment, IV treatment centers, hospice, and procedural sedation centers.  The varied experience gave me a wide range of nursing skills.  After awhile I decided I wanted to have a larger impact, which is why I took a job with the health department. I was originally hired as a public health nurse to support vaccinations, but within weeks of starting, COVID-19 began to spread across the country and then throughout the state. I was pulled in to support with emergency response during the original activation of the emergency operations center at the start of the pandemic and I have been involved ever since. I have also served as a volunteer EMT with search and rescue teams for over 30 years, so emergency response is not only one of my strengths, but one of my passions. 

Working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response was challenging in so many ways. How did you balance your personal needs with the demands of those you supported? 

Staying focused on the mission helped to get me through. Of course, there were days that I questioned why I was doing the work, but then I reminded myself that it was to keep first responders and Tribes healthy, and to work to minimize the impact that COVID-19 had on both of these communities. The work our team has done has been grueling and difficult. Many times, we made decisions with people's lives in our hands. 

But when someone doesn't have what they need––be it a ventilator, a mask, a test, or even a hug–– and you are able to get it to them, regardless of how big or small, it makes a difference.  Many of the people that I serve have said, ‘Even when COVID-19 goes away, we know you’ll still be here to support us’.  It feels really good to have that kind of support. And it’s true, I’m not going anywhere and still serve in that role.

How has your work pivoted now that we are moving beyond the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic?

I remain the Public Safety and Tribal Nations Liaison for the health department. The department is in the process of hiring additional liaisons to support the communities I serve. I still support COVID-19 efforts, including with testing and vaccinations on Tribal Nations, but lately my focus has been on ensuring asylum seekers are supported with testing, medical care, shelter, and transportation to final destinations. Between July 2021 and December 2022, we worked with the Mexican Consulate to provide over 18,000 COVID-19 vaccines to border communities adjacent to the Tohono O’odham Nation. 

I feel proud that, with my role, the health department has established strong relationships with the Tribal Nations in southern Arizona. Prior to this work, communication between the health department and Tribal Nations had room for improvement. Now, the Tribal Nations aren’t just working with the health department, but also with each other. We support each other. We look out for each other and we help each other whenever we can. 

What values guide your approach to relationship building?

I work with a lot of different people who share a commitment to improving their community. There was a period in our country when communities were united. You don’t see much of that anymore, but it would be nice to get back there––to have a common mission and to treat each other well. You don't have to like everybody; you don’t even have to agree with a person’s political or scientific views. Just hear them out.

I apply this same perspective to my work. Basic respect and courtesy can go a long way in making life better for everyone, and as leaders, we must model that. The only way we're going to affect change is by setting an example to treat everyone with dignity, respect, and listening with an open mind to what they have to say, regardless of if we agree with them or not. 

I also try to come from a place of inclusion and gratitude. I've worked with some pretty amazing people, from Tribal chiefs to first responders. I’ve learned something from them every part of the way. And I tell them this! I try and tell everyone I work with how grateful I am for their involvement and input.  

What keeps you hopeful?

The people I work for and the people that I work with. You know, we're family. We don't always agree, we don't always get along, but at the end of the day you all share the same mission. We are all on the same team. That keeps me going every day.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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