The Roanoker - July/August 2020 - 24

24

JULY/AUGUST 2020

contemplation, fewer conversations about
intractable societal problems.
" When I retired, the two things I was most
looking forward to were not multi-tasking
and not hurrying, " she says.
But then an unknown virus swept the
globe, upending everyone's lives - including
O'Dell's.

Trusted Leader Takes Charge
When O'Dell was named communicable
diseases director for Roanoke and Alleghany,
residents across the region collectively
exhaled. From the out-of-luck mother she'd
treated at the health department clinic to
the Buchanan town leaders who've worked
alongside her since the 1980s, the folks
O'Dell encountered over her career trust her
calm competence and value her persistent
problem-solving.
" I was so relieved when she was put
in charge, " says author Beth Macy, who
consulted O'Dell when researching her latest
book, " Dopesick. " Macy has interviewed
O'Dell for in-depth reporting projects over
three decades.
" She's not afraid to say the truth and we're
learning now that that's so important, " Macy
says.
O'Dell's early days on the job felt like
trying to stand beneath a raging waterfall.

She had technology to master, a
far-flung staff to connect with, new
guidelines to adopt on everything
from restaurant safety to death
certificates.
" And then it all changes the next
day, right? "
She held her first meetings
in parking lots, so she could
safely introduce herself to health
department employees, explain
what her responsibilities would be,
answer anxious questions.
Eventually, she wrangled her
duties into a manageable routine:
daily and weekly conference calls
with health directors throughout
the state, communicable disease
experts, city and county leaders, the
media. She oversaw the handling
of nursing home protocols and
essential store safety plans.
Through it all, she leaned
on time-tested techniques of
collaboration and seeking input from a variety
of community resources.
" With an interdisciplinary approach, you
work through the issues together, " O'Dell
explains. " It's so easy when you know what
the goal is, which is keeping the most people
healthy and safe as you can with what your
resources are. "
If there is any upside to the devastation
that COVID has wrought, it's that the role of
public health is becoming clearer to everyone,
O'Dell says.
" The core of public health is preventing
disease and protecting the public, " she says.
" And so once you have a communicable
disease, it's case investigation and contact
tracing. We've been doing that forever.
Nobody ever gave a hoot about that. And
now it's so important. For the average guy
to understand COVID, they need to know a
little bit about immunology and a whole lot
about public health. "
No one knows how harshly the coronavirus
will shake the Roanoke Valley before it's
through. But O'Dell is not afraid. She believes
public health protocols will be a bridge to the
other side of this crisis.
" There are systems in place to protect us
and help us do the right thing, " she says,
speaking from the heart and from decades of
on-the-ground experience. " That's the part
that's comforting. " I

TheRoanoker.com

COURTESY OF MOLLY O'DELL

She fell into public health when
her medical insurance company
stopped covering solo practioners.
She applied to be director of the
Alleghany Health District and
landed the position.
" I remember going in and telling
the staff: 'I don't know anything
about this. Give me a year to
figure out how I can make your life
better.' They taught me everything
I needed to know about public
health. "
For 19 years, she battled teen
pregnancy, a rise in sexually
transmitted diseases, the arrival of
HIV/AIDS, the obesity epidemic,
budget cuts and the beginnings of
the opioid crisis.
She was instrumental in the
1988 founding of the Child Health
Investment Partnership (CHIP)
of the Roanoke Valley. Its work -
preparing children for first grade,
developmentally, nutritionally, mentally - she
saw as essential to improving public health.
" She has that big picture view, " says Robin
Haldiman, CHIP's CEO since 1996. " But she
also connects with people. She understands
them at a human level. "
Somewhere in the swirl of seeing patients
and cooking dinner, of raising her kids and
rolling out education campaigns, O'Dell
discovered she had a deep desire to tell stories.
So when her husband planned a move to
Omaha in 2006, she went too. She earned
a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from the
University of Nebraska Omaha, even as she
helped build a public health curriculum for
the university, all while mentoring students
and teaching classes there. In addition, she
worked on a broad, health care company-led
initiative to combat childhood obesity.
In 2010, O'Dell moved back to Buchanan,
alone. She stepped into a familiar role as
director of the New River Health District,
where she tackled Zika virus prevention, the
effects of poverty on health, the drug use that
was infecting her community.
But her writing joined her now as she
walked through her days. In 2015, she
published her first book of poetry, a collection
centered around her early years as doctor and
mother.
By 2016, she was ready to shift the
balance: more writing, fewer meetings; more


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The Roanoker - July/August 2020

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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
The Roanoker - July/August 2020 - Cover4
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