I have frequently been asked why it is that an unelected “bureaucrat” like me has the power to promulgate public health orders during a pandemic in Colorado. It’s a long story, and to me its hero is a “little old lady” who grew up in the mining town of Central City.
In the 1940s, the health of Colorado was abysmal. More than 40 percent of Colorado draftees for World War II were found to be “not physically fit for the Armed Services.” Colorado had high rates of diphtheria, typhoid, dysentery, and maternal and infant mortality. It was one of the six worst states in the country in regard to smallpox.
In 1944, as Colorado prepared for the return of its soldiers from World War II, Governor John Vivian appointed numerous planning committees, including a committee on public health. The Governor had no real interest in health and was convinced by an aide that the retired Dr. Florence Sabin, an “innocuous, white-haired, little old lady” should chair the committee. She was indeed a “little old lady,” but she was far from innocuous.
Florence had graduated from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she also became the school’s first female professor. Subsequently, she was the first female president of the American Association of Anatomists and the first woman elected into the National Academy of Sciences.
As chair of the Health Committee, Dr. Sabin didn’t “waste” time talking to the state’s legislators, but worked instead with the legislators’ spouses, teaching them about the abysmal state of public health in Colorado. Because of their influence, in 1948 the Legislature passed the “Sabin Health Laws.”
Her constant message had been that the health of the public was too important to leave to politics, and the public health system the Sabin Health Laws established required a professionally trained staff of physicians, nurses, health educators and scientists—hired on the basis of merit, not political bias. And so, because of that “innocuous little old lady,” public health decisions in Colorado were taken out of the hands of politicians and left to scientifically trained public health professionals.
We Adventists have a “white-haired, little old lady” of our own. She too was far from innocuous, and was comfortable speaking truth to the powerful. Based on her guidance, we have established the largest protestant healthcare system in the world, with a strong focus on whole person care.
The guiding principle behind this focus was her belief that healthcare, with its intimate, personal, restorative touch, was a living manifestation of the gospel as revealed in the healing ministry of Christ. Because of this aspect of Adventism, there are thousands of professionally trained Adventist healthcare workers around the world on the frontlines of this pandemic response, putting their lives at risk to treat those in need, just as Christ did.
Mark B. Johnson, MD, MPH, is executive director at Jefferson County Public Health and a member of the Governor’s Expert Epidemic Emergency Response Committee for the state of Colorado.
This article appeared first on Facebook and in the Boulder Adventist Church Bulletin, May 14, 2020.