Judy Dowd, MS, RD, LDN
Dietetic Internship Director
University of Massachusetts
Imagine the amount of food needed to feed a family of 5 children! Good thing that Judy Dowd’s mother was a fun and fabulous cook, and while it was an obligation to help, Ms. Dowd loved cooking with her mother. “I knew I belonged in a field that involved cooking, food and healthcare, and I have always wanted to help people,” Ms. Dowd said in a recent conversation about her life and career.
Several other childhood experiences had an important impact on her life choices. Her mother was an artist, and always felt she couldn’t do what she wanted with her life. “She never had to work, but complained about being a mother because she was strapped down,” said Ms. Dowd.
At 14 she knew she didn’t want kids. While sitting around with some girlfriends in 1963 listening to the Beatles, the girls were talking about who they’d marry and have babies with, and she knew without a doubt she didn’t want them. “I didn’t want to end up like my mother,” she said.
Her experiences with food at home weren’t always positive either. As a teenager Ms. Dowd fell into the calorie counting craze in the 1960s, and looking back, suspects she had an eating disorder. Life at home was complicated by a very tough, judgmental father who was critical of her body weight and everything that she did. When she went to college her parents divorced, and she had less to do with him. She got some help, strengthened her sense of empowerment and “started to thrive academically.” She experimented with courses in nursing, but she still loved collecting recipes and cooking. Ultimately, she graduated with a BS in Food and Nutrition from the University of Massachusetts, and became a Registered Dietitian (the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics) in 1975.
Ms. Dowd’s first job mushroomed out of her internship (supervised practice) experience at Baystate Medical Center where she worked part-time in the diet office earning $35/week. She didn’t have a plan, but an opening came up (she heard a girl got eliminated from the program because she was pregnant, a predicament that could never happen these days). She asked if she could interview for the position and was given the job right away without an interview. “I was in the right place at the right time,” she said. “A year later I was hired full time, and passed the RD exam.”
She worked for Baystate for 25 years rotating through may different clinical specialties; bariatric surgery, cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation, eating disorders, outpatient care, renal dietetics, and long-term care. Inspired by her personal experience with eating disorders and her time in the clinic, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in clinical psychology with the plan to work in the out-patient eating disorders clinic. The hospital paid her tuition, but it turned out that the head of the unit didn’t want a dietitian in his clinic, even one trained in psychology. “Dietitians play a key role in helping clients understand how nutrition impacts the body, but I agree that eating disorders are a psychological issue” she said.
Even though the out-patient clinic didn’t work out, she found the psychology training helpful going forward. In 1993 Ms. Dowd decided to leave the hospital setting and open her own practice. She saw some eating disorder clients, but mostly weight management, diabetes, heart disease, and prevention. By this time, she had been happily remarried for years and her husband supported her decision go out on her own.
Not all decisions turn out to be the easiest or smoothest course, and for Ms. Dowd, the decision to go back to Baystate Medical Center in 2005 to be the program manager of the bariatric surgery unit was terrible. She learned over those difficult years that she didn’t like to be in management, and was tired of corporate healthcare: the recession of 2008 hit the hospital half through construction, it was profit driven, patients needed a lot of attention, she couldn’t satisfy administrator’s needs, and moral at the hospital was low.
But again she was at the right place at the right time when a friend let her know that the internship director position at UMASS was vacant. She has enjoyed working in that position since 2009 and finds it a perfect fit. It gives her a sense of purpose and draws on all her varied experiences as a clinical dietitian. She can speak with students about a lot of different aspects of the field. She is now also deeply involved in public policy. Though she considers retirement periodically, she is definitely not ready to leave UMASS and her students.
• Never be afraid to try something new
• Be accepting, not judgmental of people
• Get exposure to acute care in a hospital setting
• Join a student nutrition association
• Demonstrate leadership capabilities and independence
• Keep life in balance, get exercise, eat well, have fun
Where do you think the field of nutrition and dietetics is going?
Jobs are going to be outsourced to either private practices or organizations that specialize in treating certain diseases as opposed to being hospital centered. As a result, there will be more out-patient jobs. The Affordable Care Act is opening doors for community organizations such as the YMCA to hire people to work in prevention while doctors and insurance companies are trying to reduce costs by paying dietitians to do wellness checks, and offering healthy behavior incentives. There will also be more jobs for RDs in public school and food service programs because of the challenging Hunger-Free Kids Act guidelines.