Merritt Driscoll’s position as executive director of Blue Zones is a product of two major life events that shaped her view of health and wellness.
When she was 10 years old, Driscoll’s father, a smoker, died from lung cancer. Despite her young age, Driscoll found empathy and understanding for how behavior can impact overall health.
“As I grew up … it just helped me realize the importance that our behaviors have on our health and our longevity,” she said. “If my father hadn’t smoked, he might still be alive today.”
Years later, Driscoll was in a terrible car crash while in college. She broke 11 bones and had to relearn how to walk and feed herself. Recovery was hard, but it made her thankful to be alive.
“From that I became so grateful, I just learned this gratitude for life,” she said. “From that experience, I had this passion to give back and serve others and do something good in this world.”
She didn’t think she had the stomach to become a doctor, so she pursued a career in public health. She liked the way that discipline can impact an entire community, instead of focusing on just one patient at a time.
“In public health, you get to create the system changes and impact health of an entire population by changing the environment, creating programming, changing policies, and really making it easier for the community as a whole to become healthier,” she said.
After spending two years in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, gaining experience with grant writing and behavioral health, she found herself in Klamath Falls where she held several positions in the community before focusing again on public health.
A perfect fit
“The Blue Zones project came along, and it was a perfect fit for me because it really focused on that population health and community health,” she said. “There’s the tobacco prevention focus, increasing access to food focus, changing our environment to create that population health, so I was super excited about the opportunity that we were going to get the chance to become a Blue Zones project community and jumped on board.”
Klamath Falls was the first Blue Zones project in Oregon. It began in 2015.
“There’s been a number of other communities across the state that have started to be a Blue Zones project community, but so far we are the longest lasting in Oregon, and I think we have a bright future,” she said.
When COVID-19 changed people’s lifestyles, Driscoll noticed more people looking for healthy alternatives to their old habits, and understanding how important healthy behaviors are.
“I think (the pandemic) really raises the importance of health and well-being and taking care of yourself and all of the Blue Zones project principles are coming to light even more at a time like this,” she said.
While she’s come a long way in her passion for helping communities, her next goal is to keep working toward making Klamath Falls a Blue Zones certified community.
“The whole goal was to become a Blue Zones certified community,” she said. “So what that means is that we have showed a significant change in our well-being, and the numbers are proving it too.”