Ocean City Today

Goeller retires after 25 years as county health dept. head

By Brian Gilliland | Jul 06, 2017
Photo by: File photo Debbie Goeller

(July 7, 2017) As a position focused on policy, the county health officer doesn’t have much public exposure, but the decisions Debbie Goeller has made during her 25 years in that capacity will have lasting effects on how potential epidemics are handled, services are rendered and citizens are served by the health department.

Trained as an RN in the days when nursing school cost less than certain textbooks do today, Goeller joined the policy side of public health in Worcester, then left to become deputy director of the Somerset County Health Department, left that job for the same title back in Worcester and was named health officer here in 1992.

“There are certainly a number of things I’m proud of, but none of them were achieved by myself — it was always a team effort and took support from the county, state and others,” she said.

Goeller pointed to the Center for Clean Start, a program to provide prenatal and post-partum treatment for mothers and children dealing with addictions as a success, as well as the Delmarva Avian Flu task force, which started in 2004 and still meets once per year.

An avian flu infection was discovered in Pocomoke City in early 2004, leading to the slaughter of 328,000 birds.

“We collected the health department, poultry company representatives and wildlife organizations from three states and came up with a robust plan and guide on how to deal with the disease and how to combat it,” Goeller said. “They need to stay current in case of another outbreak, so we’re ready.”

As for other initiatives, “We were able to open a dental center in Berlin for Medicaid and low-income children,” Goeller said.

The health department didn’t have good information on dental care for needy children, but can track the improvements in the health of those children now that the center exists.

Goeller said she is especially proud of the Maryland Access Point, which is a service developed here integrating programs from the Departments of Aging, Social Services and Health and offering them all in one place.

“It’s a one-stop shop that became a model for the state,” she said.

She’s also proud of her addictions work by fostering a partnership between the Jenkins Foundation, the Atlantic Club and the self-help programs at the W.A.C.S. center to provide treatment for addiction issues. The partnership also provides services for social issues not related to drugs or alcohol.

When the county sought its own hospital, Atlantic General Hospital, it took the unusual step of including the health officer as an ex officio member of the board of directors, combining the policy side of care with direct patient interaction.

“I’ve been a member of the board since the hospital opened,” she said. “In the whole area of planning, I’m really proud of the work I did there.”

But the job demands flexibility.

“I think one of the struggles of people in public health is you frequently have to adjust your priorities to what conditions exist — right now we’re dealing with opioids,” she said.

Naloxone treatment, used to reverse respiratory failure common in opiate overdoses, and training along with marketing the programs had taken up a sizable portion of Goeller’s last few years in office.

“I do feel like I’m leaving in the middle of implementing policies and procedures that would hopefully turn opioids around,” she said.

The health department released its five-point plan to combat opioids on the shore during its annual health conference in April.

But the continuation of that plan and those efforts are now in the hands of Becky Jones, RN, BSN, MSN, who was named as Goeller’s replacement in May. Jones took the helm after Goeller’s formal retirement date of July 1.

“I think [Becky] will have to be realistic and pace herself and maintain a good work/life balance. She’s going to have to do what she thinks is right, because sometimes public health can be involved with larger political issues,” Goeller said. “She should always keep her eye on her residents and her county.”

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