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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Dr. Deborah McMahan earns high marks all the way up to the U.S. surgeon general for her thorough, compassionate leadership through public health crises.

Sunday, December 31, 2017 1:00 am

Dr. Deborah McMahan


2016: Dan Wire, advocate for the rivers

2015: Chuck Surack, founder and president of Sweetwater

2014: FWCS Superintendent Wendy Robinson and Board President Mark GiaQuinta

2013: Michael Packnett, president and CEO of Parkview Health System

2012: Irene Walters, executive director of university relations at IPFW, community volunteer

2011: Larry Wardlaw, chairman of Fort Wayne Metropolitan Human Relations Commission,

community volunteer

2010: Meg Distler, executive director of the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation,

and Minn Myint Nan Tin, executive director of the Burmese Advocacy Center

2009: Lynn Reecer, co-founder and president of Aboite New Trails

2008: Jane Avery, executive director of Community Harvest Food Bank

2007: Jeff Krull, director of the Allen County Public Library

2006: Hana Stith, founder and curator of the African/African-American Museum

2005: John Stafford, director of the Community Research Institute at IPFW

2004: Shirley Woods, founder of the Euell A. Wilson Center

2003: Donald Andorfer, Sister Elise Kriss, university presidents; Chancellor Mike Wartell

2002: Judges Fran Gull, Steve Sims and John Surbeck, court reform activists

2001: Jim Kelley, philanthropist

2000: Rosetta Moses Hill, education activist

1999: Father Tom O'Connor, founder of St. Mary's Soup Kitchen

1998: Phil, Joann, Matt, Glen and Ryan Nixon, activists for bike trails, traffic safety

1997: Jane Novak, mental health advocate

1996: Ternae Jordan, Stop the Madness founder

1995: Ian Rolland, Lincoln National CEO, community activist

1994: Irene Walters, Mike Hawfield and Patty Martone, Fort Wayne bicentennial organizers

1993: Jane and Tom Dustin, environmentalists

1992: Joyce Schlatter, Fort Wayne Community Foundation specialist

1991: Don Wolf, founder of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Fort Wayne and Fort Wayne Community Schools Study Connection

1990: Brenda Robinson, director of Old Fort YMCA

1989: Dr. David Porter, child abuse prevention specialist/advocate

1988: Paul Clarke, philanthropist and founder of Fort Wayne Community Foundation

The day Dr. Deborah McMahan reported for work as Fort Wayne-Allen County health commissioner, Mindy Waldron sensed what lots of others have discovered over the years. McMahan is a woman on a mission.

“We should have known, the day she arrived, how passionate she was going to be,” Waldron, the department administrator, recalled recently. “She didn't just stand and say, 'Nice to meet everyone.' She sat in this chair with her hands propped on her knees, ready to tackle whatever issue we were going to talk about that day. ... It was like she was just ready to go and waiting for somebody to let her loose – and she's never turned back.”

Every Indiana county has a top health officer, but few, if any, have been as well known and influential on a local and state level. In addition to re-sponding to disease outbreaksand other threats and attending to death certificates and other legal documents, McMahan, who took office in May 2000, plays a broader role.

She writes frequently on public health issues, speaks to service groups, and offers more specialized presentations for medical personnel and educators. Obesity, diabetes, addictions to nicotine, drugs and alcohol  – so many health problems, McMahan argues, are the result of underlying problems. She wants doctors and their patients to look for the causes behind unhealthy behavior and outcomes.

She has a knack for persuading those working on community problems to get out of their “silos” and collaborate on solutions, as when McMahan brought teachers, social workers, judges and doctors together to draft a strategic plan to address children's issues.

About five years ago, McMahan began to focus on what she considers the biggest challenge of her career: battling opioid abuse. She organized a task force to address the problem locally and became one of the leading voices on the subject statewide.

When it became clear intravenous heroin users were spreading disease by sharing dirty needles, she persuaded skeptical local leaders that giving out free syringes to addicts could prevent epidemics of HIV and hepatitis C. In 2016, the county commissioners approved the plan on a 2-1 vote, with Commissioner Nelson Peters voting no.

By the time the program came up for reauthorization this fall, Peters had changed his mind. “She won!” Peters said recently. “I didn't blink twice in voting for the needle exchange program. It was just doing exactly what she said would happen.”

For her continuing leadership in the opioid crisis, her eloquent advocacy on behalf of children and her ceaseless crusade to get others to share her vision of a healthier Fort Wayne, Dr. Deborah McMahan is The Journal Gazette's Citizen of the Year.

Born in Louisiana, McMahan, 61, has lived in Fort Wayne most of her life. She graduated from Northrop High School and Purdue and received her medical degree from the IU School of Medicine, where she did her residency. While living in Indianapolis, she also completed a research fellowship and worked at Roudebush VA Medical Center.

After she met and married Bruce Aulick, general counsel for Medical Protective Co., she returned to Fort Wayne, where she served as a Lutheran Medical Group internist for three years before her appointment as health commissioner. 

Today, McMahan's department has a staff of 70 at three locations. As the department's sole physician, she spends about half her time at the medical annex on New Haven Avenue, seeing patients with tuberculosis or other infectious diseases, performing exams for immigrants and refugees, and providing vaccines and information for residents who plan to travel abroad.

McMahan's greatest impact, though, is as a leader.

“She is probably one of the most dynamic and visionary people I've met,” said Marcia Haaff, CEO of The Lutheran Foundation, a member of the local opioid task force who has also worked with McMahan on mental-health and children's issues. “She's very high energy, very compassionate.”

“If I couldn't live in Indianapolis, I would want to live in Fort Wayne and work for Dr. McMahan,” said Dr. Joan Duwve, chief medical officer for the Indiana State Department of Health. “She is a public-health superstar, really reaching out and making sure that state and community partners are engaged.” 

Duwve said McMahan helped lead a group revising the state's health-improvement plan in 2014. “That was seriously like herding cats, and she really did a marvelous job.”

Another admirer is Jerome Adams, who served as Indiana health commissioner before becoming U.S. surgeon general earlier this year. 

“Deb McMahan exemplifies public service and public health,” Adams wrote in an email. “I knew that if there was ever a problem in Allen County, she and the health department had it under control. Allen County and the state of Indiana are a safer and healthier place due to Dr. McMahan's efforts.”

Though the opioid crisis is the biggest public-health emergency McMahan has faced, it is not the first.

Her department has responded to the presence or threat of West Nile virus, H1N1 flu, SARS, AIDS, smallpox and, most recently, Ebola and Zika. McMahan always pulls a team together to assess the situation, then gets information to responders and the public.

“Tell me, from beginning to end, how we're going to address this issue in terms of treatment, communication, preventing the 'worried well,' ” McMahan says. The “worried well” is a term for people who seek emergency aid out of panic and misinformation, sometimes slowing treatment for those who are actual victims.

“You can see what fear does to people, especially if they can't see it,” McMahan says. “If you can't see it, then you don't know where the threat is.”

Acting quickly on a health threat is essential, she says. “There's a window of opportunity in which you can contain a disease, but it's variable, and always too short. My philosophy is, be as aggressive as you can, using the tools that you have to be able to contain something, treat something and prevent something – otherwise, you're just chasing your tail.

“Like the opioid thing,” she continues. “We didn't contain it fast enough. Now we're going to be chasing our tail for years and years and years.”

The opioid epidemic is straining public resources, and overdose deaths continue to rise. But McMahan's efforts to address the problem get high marks from Capt. Kevin Hunter, who leads the Fort Wayne Police Department's anti-drug enforcement team and has worked with her as a member of the opioid task force. “She has been an amazing partner,” says Hunter, joining him and Haaff in presentations to “just about any group that will have us.”

Among those whose thinking has been changed by McMahan's clear explanations of the medical causes of the crisis is Hunter himself. “She talks about how addiction changes brain chemistry and affects people's decision-making process because the drugs basically hijack the brain,” he says. “I understand that addiction and mental illness go hand in hand, but listening to her present on these issues has really educated me.”

Hunter and others who work closely with McMahan are quick to emphasize that she has persevered despite some personal challenges. Complications from an infection kept Aulick hospitalized for an extended period this year. He returned home just before the holidays. After surgeries on both hips for a tendon problem, McMahan sometimes uses a cane.

Still, people who work with her say they can't keep up with her steady stream of ideas and projects. Waldron calls her “the Energizer Bunny Plus 10.”

“That's just the way she is,” says her husband, Aulick. “I think it's just her nature.”

McMahan says she draws her energy from “family, faith and community. ... I have a very personal deep faith.” And listening to the concerns of her patients has helped her learn what's important.

“So many people have taught me, through what they're going through and their ability and graciousness in sharing that experience,” she says. “I have had the opportunity to learn so much about life that otherwise I never would have.”

At the end of life, McMahan says, “everybody wants to know, was I loved? And did my life matter?”