Moving from Public Health to Greener Pastures

By Beacon Staff

Last Thursday was Wendy Doely’s final day as the executive director at the Flathead Community Health Center, though it would have been tough to guess that given the papers still stacked on her desk.

But Doely had an excuse for not being quite packed up. Spending nearly 33 years on the job means accumulating a lot of papers to read.

Doely, 55, retired last week after 32-and-a-half years working for the Flathead County public health system. It’s a journey she began in September 1980, as the health educator for family planning.

Since then, Doely moved into management positions, eventually facilitating the grant process that would pay for the Community Health Center. Her passion to provide solid public health options for Flathead residents has been one of the driving forces behind such expansions, according to Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell, who has worked with Doely for more than 26 years.

“I told her, ‘You’re going to leave a really strong legacy with the health department,’” Russell said in an interview last week. “Those aren’t just soft words; I really do believe that.”

When Doely started with Flathead County family planning in 1980, fresh out of college and in her first career-oriented job, there were only three people in the department: Doely, a nurse practitioner and a receptionist. At that point, no one had really heard about HIV, Doely said.

It wasn’t until 1985 that the state got on board with HIV prevention, and Doely attended the first training session on the disease. Since then, Doely has been actively involved with HIV prevention services for the Flathead.

Prevention services also shifted to include intervention services, Doely said, which allowed the health department to educate individuals who had already contracted HIV on how to live better and healthier lives.

In 1989, Doely became the director of family planning, and also directed other programs for women, such as breast and cervical health. Doely said she saw the need for public health grow in Flathead County, and responded in 2003 by working on the grants that would eventually fund the Community Health Center.

That money came through in 2008, and Doely was appointed the executive director. The growth she’s seen in the past three decades has been “tremendous,” she said.

“My focus has primarily been in the delivery of primary care,” Doely said.

That focus, along with education and prevention services, will hopefully stop illnesses before they start, she said.

But the job had its challenges. Family planning can be used a political tool, Doely acknowledged, and funding is not always certain. Just last week, a Republican-led House committee in Montana’s Legislature rejected efforts to restore federal Title X family planning money in the state budget.

According to the Associated Press, Republicans said they opposed the money because some of the $4.6 million goes to Planned Parenthood, and Republicans said there was no guarantee that the money wouldn’t pay for abortion services.

Democrats, on the other hand, said if the money is not restored in the budget, Montana will not receive any of the federal dollars that help keep community health centers that provide preventative health care for women open.

When asked about this recent legislative development, Doely said a lot of people can find controversy in family planning, but that it’s also an “exciting and challenging time” for health care in general.

“I think that the landscape is really going to change,” Doely said. “It’s very dynamic right now.”

Despite political challenges, Doely said the health department’s goal is to provide good care for patients, and that includes future programs. The Community Health Center will get its first team of physicians for a new residency program in July 2014, and Doely also hopes the health center will include limited behavioral health services in the future.

As for her, Doely and her husband Roger sold their house and 40 acres here to return to eastern Montana, where both of them grew up.

“We want to get back to some of our roots,” Doely said.

That includes a house with 112 acres for cattle and horses – they’ve already got six horses – and helping her father with this year’s lambs. It will be a nice transition, she said.

“Because I’m moving across the state, the letting go will be easier,” Doely said. “However, the board chair still has my number.”

Russell said Doely deserves this change in her life, but is skeptical that she’ll stay away from public health for long.

“I would be very surprised if I don’t see her in some capacity working in primary health in the future,” Russell said. “She’s too young and too energetic. I don’t think she’s going to sit in her rocking chair on a porch in Golden Valley.”

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