Raevsky Likes Seeing Results

March 26, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Cathy Raevsky knows details about people's sex lives that could put a blush on the Red Barn.

Raevsky's first job out of college was venereal disease investigator for the Colorado Department of Public Health, interviewing people diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases, mostly gonorrhea and syphilis. She left those interviews with the proverbial "too much information" — often readily provided by the interviewee.

"When you work in sexually transmitted diseases, you see a whole different side," said Raevsky, administrative health officer for the Kent County Health Department. "I started when I was 22. Learning about the stuff that people do, I remember thinking, 'I didn't know that was physically possible.'

"The patients were delightful and they were funny and they were sometimes tragic: It was always hard to do child abuse cases where sexually transmitted disease was involved. You sit down with someone and within an hour they've told you all about their sex life. It's pretty intense."

But today, when Raevsky looks at the drop in cases of gonorrhea and syphilis in Colorado from thousands to hundreds, she thinks she's made a difference in the world.

"The thing I like about the doing of public health is that you can really see where you're making a difference," Raevsky said. "You can actually calculate how many cases of disease we've prevented. You can actually see what kind of good you're doing."

She worked her way up the ranks in Colorado, spent a few years in California, then took the opportunity to come to Michigan to be closer to her parents in Tennessee.

Raevsky is the Kent County Health Department's top administrator and the first who is not a doctor. She oversees a $24 million budget and 300-plus employees. The department also employs a medical director.

The decision to split the director's job, which had traditionally gone to a doctor, into separate medical and administrative posts caused controversy when it was made in 2001.

"I'm only aware of two other counties in which they have a combined medical director/health officer," Raevsky said. "Clearly the trend is that you have a full-time administrative-type person and then you have either a full-time medical director or something less than full-time medical director.

"I know it caused a lot of concern and consternation here. But I think that that's largely died down. I don't hear that anymore."

Born and raised in Denver, Raevsky dropped out of a doctoral program in biopsychology to take that revealing first job. She quickly became a supervisor, overseeing metropolitan Denver and then the out-state area, and then deputy chief of the section.

"Then AIDS sort of hit and I think I woke up 10 years later," Raevsky said. "It was so consuming. I finally one day looked around and realized I was one of the only people who was still standing."

Raevsky decided to take a job in the deputy state director's office to gain some knowledge about the administrative side of public health. After several years, she took a job in cancer research.

"Then I decided that my love was still with public health and I wanted to do it at the local level and not the state level," she said. "The state level had gone to being more of a contract agency."

Raevsky became deputy director of the public health department in Merced, Calif. But, she said, "my folks had moved to Tennessee and they were getting older. Where I was in California, it was like a two-hour drive just to get to an airport. I started to look to moving East."

That brought her to KentCounty. Raevsky pointed with pride to Kent County Health Department programs, but said there is still much work to be done in the local public health arena.

Raevsky oversees the animal shelter, restaurant inspections, Women, Infants and Children programs, children's health programs, Nurse-Family Partnership, well and septic inspections, health education and screening, immunization, tuberculosis control, sexually transmitted disease control, epidemiology and a laboratory.

"I think what I get tapped to do the most of is critical thinking and problem solving," Raevsky said.

The department runs a federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children — which Raevsky said is "second to none" and reaches more of the at-risk population "than any other county."

The Women, Infants and Children program serves as a portal to introduce participants to other Health Department programs, she said. For example, "Our immunization program is one of the best. Our immunization levels keep rising year after year," she said.

Raevsky also had praise for restaurant inspections and efforts to convince local restaurant owners to ban smoking from their establishments.

But challenges are on the table, and chief among them is money, Raevsky said. The state, which mandates some services and once agreed to pay for half of them, now covers only one-third, just when Michigan's high unemployment rate is increasing demand for the department's services. The budget shortfall for mandates must be provided by KentCounty

KentCounty has an extraordinarily supportive Board of Commissioners. We've got a very generous amount of county support for activities we do. I've been here five and a half years, and for five of those, we've been having issues with the state budget," Raevsky said.

"The dollars that we used to have going to activities and issues related to KentCounty now are absorbed by these activities we are mandated to do. While our state dollars are drying up, our county dollars have also been reduced."

Raevsky said any further swings from the budget ax are likely to result in program cuts at the Health Department.

"If we have large budget cuts from the state or the county … now I think we're going to have to look at … the elimination of complete programs," Raevsky said. "I think we've done all the tightening that we can do at this point. So that's going to be a challenge if that happens."

Raevsky is concerned about the possibility of a pandemic flu outbreak.

"We are long overdue," she said. "It's all the new and emerging things, like SARS, monkey pox, the pandemic flu, West Nile. You don't know how severe it's going to be, you don't know how easily transmitted it's going to be, you don't know if it's going to be. We're pretty sure we're long overdue for that kind of an outbreak, but is it going to be this year, next year, maybe not for five years? We just don't know."

Through an acquaintance from Colorado, Raevsky is involved in national efforts to create an accreditation program for state health departments, and she is active in the Michigan organization for health departments, as well.

In her off-hours, Raevsky spends time with her two dogs, cat and horse. Back in Colorado, stressed out after spending long hours dealing with the AIDS crisis, Raevsky revived her interest in riding and showing horses. While she no longer jumps, Raevsky said she enjoys traveling to competitions to watch Dylan, the peppermint-loving, half-Clydesdale horse she bought after moving to VergennesTownship

"I'm getting to the point again when I'm thinking it's a long way down when you're jumping on a big horse," Raevsky said. "I'd much rather be the owner who goes and watches."    

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