Dr. Lee Smith, who directs the Monongalia County Health Department, brings more to the job than a fancy education.
We’ve heard a lot from Dr. Lee Smith in the past six months. Although he’s headed up the Monongalia County Health Department since 2014, it took COVID-19 to bring him into the public eye.
So who is he, anyway? Turns out the guy managing our county health policy and services holds multiple professional degrees—and he’s a thrillseeker, too.
Originally from Charleston, Smith earned his M.D. at Marshall University in 1982. His deep commitment as a young doctor to the survival and improvement of Wyoming General Hospital in Mullens, West Virginia, made him curious about the laws governing the fates of rural healthcare systems. “I’ve always had a bit of an attachment to the coalfields,” he says. So he took a position in the Emergency Department at Ruby Hospital in Morgantown and put himself through law school.
Emergency medicine turned out to be his thing, though—“I love to help people and the fast-paced style, the adrenaline”—so, even after earning his law degree in 1991, he stayed on. Through the nineties, through the aughts, and into the teens.
Somewhere in here, Smith became an insatiable world traveler, visiting not just the easy beaches and capital cities but exotic places like Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and the Galapagos Islands. He found that blue water sailing—extended periods on the open ocean, beyond any hope of Coast Guard assistance—is his real passion.
Emergency medicine changed over the decades, Smith says. Respect for the specialized skill set of a high-pressure diagnostician—quickly developing rapport with a stranger, gleaning the relevant information, and zeroing in on likely diagnoses—gave way to simply deciding whether symptoms were an emergency or could be handled later by a family physician.
He changed, too. “An old-timer told me many years ago that a physician can measure his career in thirds: In the first third, you’re unsure of yourself and need to look at the books a lot. In the second third, you’re on-spot—there isn’t a problem that you can’t figure out an answer to. In the final third, you really should be giving back.” He started to think beyond treating individual patients. “In the world of public health, instead of having a single patient in front of you, you have whole communities in front of you. It’s an opportunity to work on bigger picture–type things, ways we can have lasting positive impacts over larger groups of people.”
So in 2014, he made the switch to a position as Monongalia County health officer and executive director of the Monongalia County Health Department. While handling the dual position, he still makes travel a personal priority: He ticked the seventh continent off his list in 2019 with a two-week trip to Antarctica, where he saw three kinds of penguins and swam in 32-degree water.
Smith’s varied life experience makes him a strong public health administrator. Years in emergency medicine taught him bold decision-making. His background in law helps him navigate the MCHD’s governmental and bureaucratic context. And his globetrotting informs the Department’s sophisticated International Travel Clinic.
He says he’s been humbled by the spotlight of COVID-19. He acknowledges with pride the way his staff has risen to the challenges, and he expresses appreciation for partners like emergency medical services organizations and the West Virginia National Guard.
Six years in, is public health still interesting to this lifelong adventurer? “Absolutely!” he belly laughs. “Never a dull moment. I joke with my family that this was going to be a quiet, low-key gig that I could sail into retirement with. It’s been anything but that!”