Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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December 1, 2012

Making a difference... After 24 years, Rickman set to retire from health department

BLUEFIELD — When ground was broken for the new Mercer County Health Department building in Green Valley, one of the people who had done so much to move the project ahead made an announcement — she was going to retire.

Administrator Melody Rickman, RN, is gradually packing up her office at the health department’s temporary quarters in the St. Luke’s Professional Building. Personal belongings and mementos are gradually being put away and taken home. A blinking cat clock on her wall kept the time while she recalled her nursing career and her time working in public health.

Her last official day as the health department’s administrator is Dec. 31. Susan Kadar, a sanitarian with 30 years of public health experience, will become the new administrator on Jan. 1, 2013.

“I’ve already filled out my paperwork,” Rickman said, adding that she would miss being at the health department.

“Well, yes,” she said after sitting down at her desk. “I’ve always liked public health. I’ve enjoyed my time here, but I’m thinking that it’s time to retire and focus on my family. My mother is 87 and my husband’s retired, so I decided to retire while we’re still young enough to do things.”

Nearby was an ordinary clipboard with Rickman’s name on it; she plans to take it with her because it has been hers for more than 20 years.

“I’ve been here 24 years. I started Jan. 3, 1989.” She thought for a moment. “It was a bad winter. I remember that it was so cold. I think I worked for three days and then the basement flooded. A pop-off valve on the water heater opened.”

Rickman did not start her nursing career fresh out of college. She was a homemaker when she decided to pursue her interest and seek a career in nursing.

“I entered nursing kind of late,” she recalled. “My children were at home, and I was a stay at home mom until my youngest child was in the seventh grade. Then my husband got sick with kidney stones, and we decided at that point if he had something more serious like a heart attack or something really bad, I would have no way to take care of myself or my children. I had always wanted to be a nurse, and he suggested that I go to nursing school, and I did.

After earning an associate degree in nursing at Bluefield State College and a bachelor of science from West Virginia University, Rickman worked at Princeton Community Hospital for 10 years.

“Then I came here and I’ve been here ever since,” she said. “When I first came to public health, public health was actually in a lot of change.”

The health department investigated sexually transmitted diseases and communicable diseases, and its personnel assisted doctors who had patients with home health care needs. This was during the days before there were many companies providing home health services.

“If they had a patient in the community that had not been in for their check up, we would find the people and tell them that their doctor was concerned,” Rickman said.

Rickman also started her public health career just when the public was beginning to learn about Acquired Immune Deficiency  Syndrome, better known as AIDS. Soon the health department was adding AIDS and HIV investigations and education to its duties.

The use of illegal drugs is now considered a major health threat, but the drug use that requires needles increases the spread of another risk to public health — hepatitis. Mercer County is the number one county in West Virginia for Hepatitis B, and the state ranks first in the nation for the disease. West Virginia is also ranks third in the nation for Hepatitis C. The drug problem contributes to another grim statistic: West Virginia is first in the nation for infants who are born with a drug addiction.

One problem Rickman said she is seeing more of is the resurgence of communicable diseases that have been controlled by vaccinations. Mercer County has had four cases of pertussis, better known as whooping cough. There is a vaccine for the disease.

Rickman said fewer people are getting their children immunized because they have not seen the results of epidemics. She can remember the time when parents were afraid to let their children leave home because they might be exposed to polio. The present generation has not seen such epidemics, so they are more inclined to see diseases such as polio and whooping cough as things of the past. To counter such ideas, the health department works to educate the public about the importance of vaccinations.

When Rickman announced her plans to retire, ground was being broken for the health department’s new building. The former structure was old, poorly insulated, and often had mold problems as well as other difficulties.

Rickman will be gone when the smaller, more modern structure is completed, but she does plan to visit as a volunteer. During the groundbreaking Nov. 15, she dug up a stone from the old building’s site and a pair of bricks as mementos.

Timm Boggess, chairman of the health department’s board of directors, credited Rickman for maintaining the effort to get a new building.

“Melody Rickman never lost faith in the building,” he said after the ceremony. “If not for her, I don’t think we would have gotten to this point today. She would not let people say no. She’s an important, vital part of this.”

Working more at her church, where she is a lay speaker, is one of her post-retirement plans. She also enjoys seeking out collectibles — she has a large collection of saltshakers, some dating back to the 1950s — and she likes items such as quilts.

She does have a dream job if she wants even more to do.

“I’d mix paint at Lowe’s,” she said happily. “That would be a cool job, mixing those paints and getting those beautiful colors.”

— Contact Greg Jordan at

gjordan@bdtonline.com

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