Stephanie Szopa was surprised when she discovered she had been named one of the Union Leader’s annual 40 under Forty award winners, who are recognized for significantly contributing to their field, community and/or the state.
As an Infection Prevention Officer for the Elliot Health System, Stephanie oversees the system’s activities aimed at preventing healthcare-associated infections by ensuring infection sources are isolated or prevented to limit the spread or onset of infectious organisms. Working collaboratively with key stakeholders throughout the system, her infection prevention oversight includes the main hospital, three Urgent Care Locations, approximately 50 outpatient practices, Elliot Child Care and the Visiting Nurses Association. Stephanie’s role has been especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID has been difficult but it has shone a light on, and heightened awareness of, infection prevention,” she says. “More people realize we really are involved in every area of the health care system.”
Infection prevention covers everything from the environment; to consulting on building and renovation projects; disinfection and sterilization; staff safety; and evaluating and incorporating prevention measures to reduce harm to patients, including, but not limited to, patient placement, antimicrobial stewardship and prevention of infections associated with surgery and devices such as catheters and central lines.
“We focus on implementing prevention protocol,” Stephanie says. “I don’t think there’s anything that happens in a day, in a process or a protocol that IP shouldn’t be involved in.”
Growing up, Stephanie thought she’d pursue a career as an obstetrician. But after a meeting with her counselor during her sophomore year in college, she decided to switch from pre-med to microbiology.
“She told me, ‘If you ever want to have children someday, I recommend not being a physician or a surgeon,’” Stephanie says. “Now that I am older, and I have learned a lot, I realize you do have to trust what someone’s saying, but you really should confirm what they’re saying too because I know a lot of physicians and surgeons who have big families.” Now, as a mother of three children ages 6, 7 and 11, she encourages her kids to stay active – soccer, dance, gymnastics. “It’s important, especially during COVID, for their psyche, to be involved in more things, of course doing them as safe as possible,” she says. Stephanie also says she probably did discover more of her passion in microbiology and public health.
Stephanie went on to earn her Master’s in public health while employed as a microbiologist for Elliot Health System. She has been with the system since 2007 – except for a year-and-a-half stint commuting to the Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Hospital and School as Director of Infection Prevention (during which she stayed per diem at the Elliot). Stephanie transitioned to Infection Prevention at the Elliot Health System in 2014.
Stephanie also is the current president of the New Hampshire Infection Control and Epidemiology Board. Her two-year term was preceded by two years as the president-elect and two years as media chair. Following two years as president, she will stay on another year as post-president.
The board has been offering share sessions for acute care and long-term care workers. “We facilitate discussion and a time for all IPs to get together,” she says. “It can be COVID-related, non-COVID-related, or just devoting time focusing on our mental health because a lot of IPs are struggling with this increased demand.”
In addition, Stephanie is a member of the Elliot Decon Team – a volunteer group that assures the facility is prepared in the event of disaster or patient decontamination prior to being seen within the hospital.
Stephanie is currently considering going back to school for her Doctor of Public Health, but when things calm down a bit with the pandemic.
Dr. Baxter was a previous 40 Under Forty recipient, along with other dedicated Elliot staff. He said, “I’d like to offer my congratulations to Stephanie for being selected for this year’s 40 Under Forty class. Her work is remarkable, and it’s crucial to achieving our mission. This is a well-deserved recognition.”