Washington state Health Secretary Mary Selecky announced her retirement Wednesday, ending a nearly 15-year run that spanned three governors and made her the longest serving member of the Cabinet. Her announcement said she is retiring and going back to Colville where she began a long career as a public health advocate.
Selecky told The Olympian in a telephone interview late Wednesday that she made up her mind over the holidays that it was time to move on. She says she told Gov. Jay Inslee she would serve until he found a replacement, which he is in the process of doing, and Inslee’s team said it was she who said she would be leaving.
Ever a battler, Selecky said she went through “quite the life’s journey” as she wrestled with the decision. But it means she is going back to “the place that I call home” and has “30 acres of trees.” Selecky said even after moving to Olympia she returned many weekends to her home for 39 years and kept ties with a local Rotary Club and other groups.
“I have had – and I do mean it – the privilege of working in public health for 34 years and in public service for 38 years,” she said, speaking by phone from the University of Washington, where she was attending a meeting of the dean’s council at the school of public health.
Selecky started her career in local government in February 1975, working in economic development in Eastern Washington, then took a job in public health in Colville that introduced her to an avocation full of challenges. In a meeting with The Olympian’s editorial board late last year she mentioned having to deal with meningitis in kids going to school in 1979.
“What happened is I absolutely fell in love with public health,’’ she said.
In 1998, then-Gov. Gary Locke hired her to run the Department of Health and Selecky said “bringing the rural story to Olympia is really what brought me” to the capital.
Her span of service took her through numerous public-health incidents – everything from white powder found in government mail after the 2001 terrorist attacks to the “mad cow” scare, a flu pandemic during the tenure of Gov. Chris Gregoire, coastal debris from the earthquake and tsunami that blasted Japan in March 2011 and more recently whooping cough outbreaks.
“In Gov. Inslee’s first week we helped him get a flu shot,’’ she said.
Selecky counts the drop in smoking rates and improved immunization rates for children among her biggest contributions to public health. “When you look at what public health is about, it is about prevention,’’ she said, recalling: “I was literally one of those kids who got a polio vaccine on a sugar cube.’’
There were complaints about how bad doctors were handled, but Selecky she said her agency improved licensing for providers and facilities.
In an email note to all DOH workers, she recapped her time:
I’ve experienced and been involved with issues I would never have imagined. I stood in a doorway during the Nisqually earthquake, and was told later I should have been under the table. I’ve struggled through the days after a terrorist attack; helped sort out how to respond to mad cow and tsunami debris; made it through a pandemic; and worked with all of you to figure out our role in floods, fires, and other emergencies.
Together we took on big tobacco, cut smoking rates, and saved lives. We’ve improved immunization rates and patient safety, faced the impacts of chronic disease, integrated preparedness into the regular work of public health, and helped make Puget Sound cleaner and shellfish safer; and have made this agency a trusted, credible source of health information. We have one of the strongest local-state public health relationships in the nation. And we hope to soon be one of the first state health departments to receive public health accreditation.
Whoever fills her shoes faces the chronic challenge in deploying resources where they are most needed.
“Since February 2009 we’ve had 10 budget reductions. We’ve leaned up agency programs… What we are facing are new challenges in the health of the population. Everyone wants to take them on,” Selecky said. “The challenges are how do you pull (together) the resources we have – that are federal and state … and local and how do you have healthy communities?’’
Even at retirement age, Selecky may not be done in public health. She said intends to continue with health activities, she remains active in a few national groups and she going back to a community that has a “vibrant” hospital.