Dan Hust | Democrat
Retiring Sullivan County Public Health Director Carol Ryan, right, was given a certificate of appreciation from the Senior Legislative Action Committee (SLAC, led by Priscilla Bassett, left) during a presentation Friday at the Government Center in Monticello. Speaking to SLAC membes about obsity, she repeated familiar words to anyone focused on their health, "It doesn't mean you have to be a saint. You can make little changes to impact your life."
She retires no, really!
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO August 2, 2013 Tuesday was Sullivan County Public Health Director Carol Ryan’s last day.
Or so she said.
For anyone who knows Ryan, it’s hard to imagine she wasn’t stabbing at her cellphone screen or returning calls the rest of this week.
Having worked much of the weekend leading up to her retirement, Ryan herself was having trouble imagining a slower pace of life.
Yet, true to character, the Grahamsville resident has already planned some of it out, devoting at least the next two months to family, friends and the kind of travel her 25 years in Sullivan County’s employ rarely allowed.
So all those people and groups eager to tap into her vast knowledge of public health and governmental structures will need to bide their time.
“I have to see how it feels to retire,” Ryan said this past week, prior to giving one last presentation to a group on obesity. “... Since I was 14 years old, I’ve worked!”
A registered nurse for over 30 years, Ryan spent six years with Catskill Regional Medical Center (then known as Community General Hospital of Sullivan County) working in pre-operative, post-operative, and intensive care units.
Despite the hands-on nature of hospital work, she felt an incredible pull toward community health and conveyed that to then-Public Health Director Dyan Campbell.
“I just wanted to give more of myself,” Ryan recalled. “We talked a long time, and at the end, she talked me into filling out an application.”
Campbell’s persistent phone calls even one that woke Ryan up from a dead sleep after an exhausting night shift ultimately led Ryan to accept a nursing position in the county’s Public Health Department.
Now she was giving care directly in people’s homes, determining how best to provide solutions to them and their loved ones.
“I was there as a guest to empower them,” Ryan affirmed. “I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.”
Though she didn’t aspire to leadership roles, that uncontainable enthusiasm pushed her up through Public Health’s ranks first as Epidemiology Program Coordinator, then as Supervising Public Health Nurse, followed by Assistant Director.
Ultimately, in 1999, she became the county’s Director of Public Health, along with Director of Patient Services (a merging of two jobs due to budget constraints).
Overseeing dozens of staff, numerous health clinics and outreach efforts, and interacting with the state and federal governments’ enormously complex bureaucracy, Ryan became a trusted face of healthcare in Sullivan County.
“I feel it’s a very altruistic profession,” she explained. “There is a big aspect to public health of social justice, which I love.”
That love also has led to pain. You can see it in her face when she recalls the loss of Public Health offerings and staff due to budget cuts, or the struggle to pull Sullivan County out of the bottom of statewide health rankings.
“[Those rankings] are so directly connected to income,” she said, “... so it is not just a Public Health job to do something about that.”
Indeed, Ryan has been an advocate at many a local and state gathering, from arguing for passing living-wage laws to campaigning for planning and public health officials to more closely work on developing healthy communities.
“There are so many natural connections with public health,” she noted. “... Health is so important in every aspect of life. If you don’t have a healthy community, you don’t have a healthy economy.”
The future concerns her, even as she plans her own. In particular, she worries that changes to the Medicare system will make healthcare less accessible and affordable citing as an example the fact that physicians administering free (government-funded) vaccines can charge an “administrative fee” of $25 per vaccine.
And funds for many public health outreach efforts are increasingly hard to come by.
“That’s sort of a symptom of how effective public health is,” she noted ruefully. “[People say] ‘Oh, we don’t need that anymore!’”
Ryan admitted she won’t miss the political atmosphere in which she sometimes had to operate, but she will miss the people with whom she worked and how much she was able to effect change as Public Health’s leader.
“I’m very proud of starting the discussion about minority health disparities,” she said. “I think that conversation needs to continue.”
For at least a little while, however, that conversation will go on without her.
“I feel there is a time for everything,” she related. “I’m 62 you don’t live forever!”
And the nonstop demands of her career have kept her from a variety of personal pursuits including one hard to ignore for anyone, especially a nurse: taking care of an ill family member.
“This job is relentless in the amount of energy you have to give it,” she acknowledged.
So while she’s still teaching online courses and plans to explore a range of volunteer opportunities, the next few months offer Ryan the chance to reconnect with family, with friends, with nature, with herself.
“I only have to do what I really want to do,” she said, a touch of amazement in her voice.
Nevertheless, count on seeing her involved in local causes by this time next year.
“I just need a little time to look at my options,” she explained. “I feel I still have a lot to contribute.”