Multnomah County Board salutes Dr. Gary Oxman’s outstanding career

January 22, 2013

The doctor who’s calmly steered Multnomah County’s response to the flu, Hepatitis C, bat bites, drug overdoses, infant deaths and anthrax is retiring after 28 years.

On Thursday, the Multnomah County Board of County Commissioners proclaimed Jan. 17, 2013 as “Dr. Gary Oxman Day.” A family physician, Oxman became the Multnomah County medical director in 1984 and the health officer three years later. Since 2006, he has been the Tri-County Health Officer for Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.

Oxman, 60, retires Jan. 31. Dr. Justin Denny, a public health, family and emergency room physician, will assume all of Oxman’s duties at Multnomah County and as the Tri-County Health Officer.

In an emotional presentation before the board on Thursday, Oxman’s co-workers and community members thanked him with tears, laughter and a vivid display of tattoos (temporary ones) declaring simply “Oxman Forever.’’  

Dr. Bruce Goldberg, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said in a videotaped message that “Gary Oxman is probably the best Health Officer in the entire country.’’

“He’s smart, he’s a critical thinker, he’s compassionate,’ Goldberg said, “and he’s just a hell of a nice guy.’’

County Chair Jeff Cogen said Oxman’s approach to problems and people carried a rare credibility. He used a Yiddish word to sum up a person like Oxman who dedicates his life to healing and repairing the world, who recognizes and values the humanity of others and who is humble.

“Gary, you are a mensch,’’ Cogen said.

Mary Lou Hennrich, executive director of the Oregon Public Health Institute, said, “Gary has just worked to make the world a better place.’’

The youngest son of a Minneapolis psychologist and a speech pathologist, Oxman was a family doctor in Portland who switched to public health five years into his practice.

“I had patients who were having chronic pain and were seeking drugs for their pain and whose pain was not just physical but also emotional and spiritual,” Oxman said. “I sensed there was something about approaching that in the larger system that would lead to some solutions for them.”

Hennrich, who helped hire Oxman at the county, recalled the county being approached by a Native American family hoping to bury a daughter on their land. Gary responded to the unusual request in person and helped make it happen.

“It honored the family and the tradition and it pushed the envelope,’’ Hennrich said, “And that personified Gary.’’

Ed Blackburn, executive director of Central City Concern, said Oxman ended an epidemic of heroin deaths in the late 1990s in large part by meeting with recovering addicts to understand the problem and find a solution.

“A lot of people have been blessed and lives changed for the better because of Gary Oxman,’’ Blackburn said.

As health officer, Oxman has mentored younger colleagues, medical students and a legion of county employees. Jessica Guernsey, maternal-child health manager for the county, said in addition to the principles of health, there is an Oxman Principle:

“The Oxman principle: the pinnacle of ethics, centered, balance of heart and head, balance of art and science, mentor, transparent, able to give direct and meaningful feedback, kind, calm, contemplative, process over product while still getting there, committed equitable, effective basically  the spiritual leader of local public health. These qualities are evidenced by occupational health for sex workers, Hepatitis C and HIV prevention, needle exchange, addressing health disparities and infant mortality healthy families, overdose prevention, obesity prevention, safe waters supply, mosquito control, influenza prevention,  Occupy Portland, small pox, tobacco prevention oral health for all and health access for all.”

Oxman has long refused to take individual credit for anything the Health Department has accomplishes, saying, “I’m a contributor.’’

But under his tutelage the county has built a more efficient ambulance system; kept rates of HIV low particularly among people who inject drugs and decreased tuberculosis by 75 percent. Oxman also worked to help increase food safety and create a state-of the-art approach with area hospital and health centers in preparing for disasters.

He worked to increase the diversity of the health department staff and health equity throughout its programs.  “I’m really going to miss that equity part,’’ said KaRin Johnson, deputy director of the health department. “You bring up the hard issues and you don’t quit,”

Known for his low-key approach, Oxman was also distinct for his choice of footwear (sandals), cars (hand-painted), hobbies, (flying on a trapeze) and music (bass guitarist for the band, HomeBrew.)

“Gary has brought not only integrity, science and leadership to our department, but also a lot of fun.” said Health Department Director Lillian Shirley.

At the board meeting, Oxman thanked his wife, Kathryn Menard and his sons, Gabriel and Damien, and sister Karen; his colleagues and the board.  

“We like to think of public health as a well-choreographed, well-rehearsed dance and as health officer, my experience is that it’s also a card game,” Oxman said. “We get to play the hand we’re dealt. We’re dealt a hand of community circumstances punctuated by events, by wild cards that can threaten the health of the community but can also be played to improve the community’s health.

As you go forward, “I urge you to play your hand well.’’

He then paused with emotion.

“Exercise compassion and a sense of justice in all you that do. Discover new truths and rediscover the old ones, the forgotten ones,” he said. “Apply your knowledge and creativity. Learn from what you experience and remember, it’s the lovin’ of the game.”

Watch a video on “Dr. Gary Oxman: A public servant and much, much more.’’