The Roanoker - July/August 2020 - 22

written by Christina Nifong
illustrated by Adam Johnson

The Face of Roanoke Public Health
After 24 years as public servant and 40 as practicing physician,
Molly O'Dell is fighting the disease of a lifetime.

HE CALL CAME ON
MARCH 15 from a former
colleague at the V irginia
Department of Health. Could
Molly O'Dell come out of
retirement?
With a global pandemic nipping at the
state's heels, the request was urgent. We need
you, Dr. O'Dell, to coordinate the Roanoke
region's response to the biggest health crisis
in a lifetime.
" I know I have the knowledge, the skills,
the ability, " O'Dell remembers thinking. " A
lot of my relationships in the community are
still there. How can I say no? "
So on Tuesday, March 17, O'Dell, who had
retired as director of the New River Health
District in 2016 and had served as director
of Roanoke City and Alleghany Health
Districts from 1987 to 2006, and was hired
by Dr. Laura Kornegay, acting director of
the Roanoke and Alleghany districts, as well
as director of Central Shenandoah Health
District. Together they hashed out a plan.
O'Dell would ser ve as Director of
Communicable Disease Control for Roanoke
and Alleghany. Anything COVID-related
would be hers.
Since then, O'Dell, 66, has absorbed
massive amounts of information. She's put
new procedures in place in an instant. She's
managed personal protective equipment,
consulted with nursing homes and jails, helped
institutions ramp up testing capabilities, hired

22

JULY/AUGUST 2020

investigators who could trace those who've
come in contact with the virus.
Early on, she appeared in a first-ever
televised public health forum in which
area hospital leaders addressed community
concerns. Overnight, she became the face of
Roanoke's coronavirus fight.
This was never O'Dell's plan. Four years
into her retirement, she expected to garden
and forage this summer, to hike with her two
grown children, teach a class at Virginia Tech
Carilion School of Medicine and prepare for
the publication of her second book of poetry.
But after 24 years as a public servant
and 40 years as a practicing physician, after
surviving divorce and two rounds of breast
cancer, O'Dell was not about to sit on the
sidelines when her community needed her.
The Roanoke region has been her home for
six decades. She considers its people - all of
them - to be her friends, her teachers, her
responsibility.
" Molly won't rest until everybody is safe
and sound, " says Magda Peck, a colleague who
worked with O'Dell in Omaha, Nebraska, to
create that state's first school of public health.
" It's not enough to treat one person. She
needs the entire community to be whole. "

Health Care Pioneer

At a time when health care workers, grocery
store cashiers, school teachers and local
farmers are heralded as heroes, the spotlight

is also shining on the behind-the-scenes work
of the nation's public health champions.
Think Anthony Fauci, Ohio Health
Department Director Amy Acton, U.S. State
Department 's Deborah Birx. Roanoke's
unsung public health leader is Molly O'Dell.
Her life story is one of breaking barriers
and rising to challenges.
She's one of a family of seven, raised in
South Roanoke. She enrolled at Longwood
University with plans to become a nurse. A
college professor inspired her to aim higher.
She became the first woman from
Longwood to head directly to medical
school when she entered what was then the
Medical College of Virginia and is now the
Virginia Commonwealth University School
of Medicine. As she pondered what kind of
doctor to become, she had one overriding
goal: " I knew I wanted to come back home. "
O'Dell recalls how tough it was to be a
young woman practicing medicine in Southwest
Virginia in the 1980s. And also, how beautiful.
" The patients would not even check in, "
she says of her doctor's office on Buchanan's
Main Street. " They knew where my son was
and they'd walk to his little nursery in the
back and just pick him up. "
On Fridays, O'Dell made house calls.
Sometimes she was paid in eggs or baked
goods or offers to paint her house.
" I didn't know it at the time but it was the
last vestige of being able to practice like that, "
she remembers.

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The Roanoker - July/August 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of The Roanoker - July/August 2020

The Roanoker - July/August 2020 - Cover1
The Roanoker - July/August 2020 - Cover2
The Roanoker - July/August 2020 - 3
The Roanoker - July/August 2020 - 4
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The Roanoker - July/August 2020 - Cover3
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