Health and Human Services Commissioner, City of Springfield
Public Health Has Become Her Life’s Work
When then-Mayor Michael Albano invited her to take on the considerable challenge of directing Springfield’s Health Department and Human Services Department as one entity and oversee that consolidation effort, Helen Caulton-Harris was caught somewhat off guard.
She didn’t know Albano, was not active in his campaign for the corner office, and was not expecting any invitations to join his administration.
So when the request came, she had to think about it for a while, but eventually said ‘yes.’ But certainly not with the expectation that 26 years and two mayors (including the current office holder, Domenic Sarno, who has had the job for 14 years) later, she would still have that title on her business card.
“I certainly didn’t see this as something that I would be doing two and half decades later,” she said, adding that she has stayed in this post for several reasons, but especially because she loves not only the work, but also her ability to make a real difference in the community, and also because there is still considerable work to do.
And there are always new and different challenges to meet, not the least of which is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has tested Caulton-Harris and her department in every way imaginable. It has also been a learning experience on many different levels, as we’ll see, and one that has provided some valuable lessons on how things can be done better and more efficiently.
“The way in which our public-health community has shifted because of the pandemic is that we’ve learned to work together,” she told BusinessWest. “We understood that we had to collaborate and coordinate, and that we must share information. We’re no longer working exclusively in silos; we are working across the public-health venue.
“The way in which our public-health community has shifted because of the pandemic is that we’ve learned to work together.”
“Every two weeks, we have a session with all of our partners to talk about our outreach, lessons learned, and best practices,” she went on. “So those things are part of what has happened as far as COVID-19 is concerned — our communication strategies have become more concrete.”
Caulton-Harris is the 2022 Healthcare Hero in the prestigious Lifetime Achievement category, and she has truly accomplished quite a bit in her career, especially this current chapter.
Overall, she has been an advocate, a true believer in the power of information — she preaches education — and a leader who has taken problems head on and achieved notable progress in areas ranging from teen pregnancy to infant mortality; from care for the homeless population to policies limiting smoking in public places; from substance-use disorders to violence prevention.
There are always new challenges, she said, adding that, today, there are many that she and her department are addressing as the landscape continues to change and evolve.
“Today, we’re dealing with the legalization of marijuana; cannabis is legal, but we still need to educate people about it,” she noted. “Also, gaming and problem gambling. We also have an opioid crisis, which is different than other substance-abuse matters because of fentanyl and the cheap way in which individuals are getting their products and how it escalates and has such an impact on our young people and our communities as well.”
While there have been many accomplishments during her lengthy career, she considers the biggest to be the merger of the Health and Human Services departments into one entity.
“They should not be seen as separate — they flow together,” she said with clear conviction in her voice. “I describe public health as a social-justice movement rooted in science. And Human Services really is about social justice.”
For all that she has accomplished during her life and career, and for the manner in which she has worked to improve the health and well-being of all those living, working, and doing business in the City of Homes, Caulton-Harris is a true Healthcare Hero.
A Life’s Work
When asked if she misses the regular weekly press briefings that came to symbolize the early months of the pandemic, Caulton-Harris flashed a wide smile and said simply, “not really.”
Those briefings, which also featured Sarno; Dr. Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health; and Dr. Robert Roose, chief administrative officer at Mercy Medical Center, were conducted to keep city residents informed about was happening and what to possibly expect next, and provide up-to-date statistics concerning cases, hospitalizations, deaths, and more.
She doesn’t miss them because they came to symbolize the very worst days of the pandemic in a city that was hit very hard by COVID. But also because, while Caulton-Harris, as noted, preaches the importance of information and education and still makes regular appearances on TV, she prefers not to be in front of the camera. Instead, she would rather be working behind the scenes, advocating of behalf of area residents and providing a voice for those who struggle to make to make their voice heard.
It has been that way since her early days in the broad realm of healthcare, working with women on the issue of reproductive health, a subject which has, to a large degree, come full circle with the recent Supreme Court vote to overturn Roe v. Wade (more on that later).
“I would talk to them about the choices as far as pregnancy, whether that was to continue the pregnancy, terminate, or adopt,” she said. “So very early on in my career, I became an advocate.”
Later, while working at what is now the Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center, she was influenced by several role models, especially African-American nurses, who showed her that there were career paths for young people like her.
“I got an opportunity to see what the possibilities were for my own career,” she said. “There were individuals from my community who were making a difference in the lives of others.”
“I did not believe it was going to go on for two and half years — we’re still dealing with the pandemic today. Early on, we thought it might be a month or two, but it continues to be a pervasive virus that we’re dealing with.”
In 1994, Caulton-Harris would become executive director of the Area Health Education Center at Springfield Technical Community College, one of six such facilities in the Commonwealth, a role that enabled her to work with young people who were interested in careers in healthcare.
“I got to mentor and nurture them in a way that was very special to me,” she said, adding that, while she was in that post, she was approached by Albano about being the first commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Recalling that conversation she had with the mayor about this opportunity that doubled as a stern challenge, she said it focused on why the departments should be merged and how that should be undertaken, but also how such a merger could help address the emerging health issues of that day.
And there were many of them, she recalled, citing a sky-high teen-pregnancy rate, an equally alarming infant-mortality rate, HIV/AIDS, violence, and drugs, among others.
And it was that conversation that prompted her to leave what was a good position and step into one that would be challenging on many levels but also one that would enable her to impact lives and make a difference in the community.
“I was not quite clear on the politics of the position,” she admitted. “For me, I filtered it with the fact that I really can make a difference in the city by putting policies in place that would stay as a foundation moving forward.”
And that is exactly what she has done.
While tackling the many challenges that impact health, Caulton-Harris and other city leaders were confronted by the pandemic, which in some ways defines her career, but also sums up her straight-on approach to issues affecting the public.
“The pandemic was something that I was not prepared for and could not have foreseen as something that I would have to deal with,” she told BusinessWest. “I don’t think anyone thought we’d be dealing with a pandemic like we did in 1918, but here we are, 100 years later, dealing with a global pandemic that was devastating the world.
“Very early on, it was clear that this was devastating — our hospitals were overrun with COVID patients; our community was devastated. The Black and Brown communities in the city of Springfield probably got hit the hardest in terms of livelihood and being able to work, so we knew that staying home from some jobs simply wasn’t an option for some people. So it was all-consuming; I lived COVID-19 education every day, and I continue to do that.”
The seriousness of the virus was one issue, Caulton-Harris went on, adding that the degree of difficulty in coping with the situation was compounded by information from state and federal agencies that was often lacking, inconsistent, and at times quite confusing.
“In the early part of the pandemic, we were told that masks were not necessary, and then we were told we needed to mask up,” she recalled. “We did not have vaccines, so education and working with the public became critical. It was my lived public-health experience that enabled me to take on the pandemic. I did not believe it was going to go on for two and half years — we’re still dealing with the pandemic today. Early on, we thought it might be a month or two, but it continues to be a pervasive virus that we’re dealing with.”
As she noted, the COVID experience, if you will, has generated improvement in how those involved in matters of public health communicate, collaborate, and work together to serve the community.
As an example, she cited the work of a collective that came to be known as the ‘VAX FORCE.’
“This was a combination of physicians, community members, researchers … there were 15 individuals who were appointed by Mayor Sarno to be part of this VAX FORCE,” she recalled. “We met to put strategies in place to be able to work with the public, and that manifested itself in vaccination clinics that we had in the North End, the South End, Mason Square, Indian Orchard, and other neighborhoods. We were very intentional about the fact that we had to meet people where they were, and we used all of the expertise of the individuals on the VAX FORCE to come up with a strategy to market and make sure we were hitting all the various communities that we needed to hit.
“That, to me, was a very important strategy, and one that we put together in a way that was different than what we would have done had we not experienced the pandemic,” she went on, adding that this will be the blueprint for how to do things moving forward.
The Next Chapter
When asked what might come next for her as she nears retirement age, Caulton-Harris opted to borrow some words used recently by tennis star Serena Williams, who eschewed the term ‘retirement,’ and instead said that she will be ‘transitioning,’ or ‘evolving.’
Caulton-Harris said she will likely be doing some of the same, noting she is working on a book, a personal history of sorts, that she started maybe a decade ago.
“It’s going to be about the journey that I’ve had, from the public-health perspective, but also the personal side,” she said. “I think it’s important to be able to talk about the experiences and let people know the human side of who we are.”
Some would say she’s already written the book, the one about how to be a true leader in public health and make a difference in the community. The one about how to be a Healthcare Hero.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]