- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
She’s only been on the job for two months.
In that time the new health officer for St. Mary’s County, Dr. Meenakshi “Meena” Brewster, has been making contacts with health-related institutions in the county (which to Brewster, includes just about every institution we’ve got), taking stock of the county’s health situation, studying statistics and probably starting a lengthy to-do list.
Brewster, the first female health officer ever for St. Mary’s, is a communicator, an activist and someone who says she is passionate about public health. And you believe her.
“Serving a population and having an impact on individuals. How could you say ‘no’?” Brewster said about her new position as she talked Monday in the conference room at the health department offices in Leonardtown.
Brewster has taken over the position of county health officer from Dr. William Icenhower, who retired last June after serving in the job for 11 years. Before Brewster started the job in mid-December, Tracy Kubinek, deputy health officer for St. Mary’s County, served as acting health officer.
The health officer is a state-funded position that is nominated by a county and appointed by Maryland’s health secretary to lead health services in that jurisdiction.
Brewster, a public health-trained physician who is board-certified in the clinical specialties of family medicine and sport medicine, comes to St. Mary’s from Indianapolis, where, since 2009, she served as medical director for the Health and Human Services Commission at the Indiana State Department of Health. She had also served as the state’s chronic disease director, overseeing statewide efforts to address some of Indiana’s most challenging public health concerns.
Brewster said that Indiana’s issues are not so foreign to those affecting St. Mary’s County. “Indiana is really a network of small towns,” she said, adding that she is familiar with health issues commonly associated with rural areas.
She said she was happy for the chance to move more to the county level where you can “have an impact.” “It was an opportunity for me to engage more locally,” she said.
Brewster became familiar with Southern Maryland by visiting her older sister, Dr. Monika Lee, a family physician in Leonardtown, who is married to Dr. Harold Lee, head of the anesthesiology department at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital. Brewster’s sister has lived in Leonardtown for 13 years and lived in La Plata for five years before that.
“Our family is mostly in the Northeast, but also, she’s been visiting me,” Monika Lee said Wednesday morning, to partially explain her sister’s move. “She’s always enjoyed her visits.”
She laughed about the idea that the rest of their siblings (the sisters have two brothers who are also in the medical field) might be drawn to Southern Maryland also. “Yeah, I’ll work on that,” she said.
Monika describes her sister as a people person. “She’s very dynamic. An innovator. A really creative thinker,” she said. “She has a lot of energy. She’s very bright, and she likes to take on projects and see them through.”
Brewster said she sees the appeal of St. Mary’s. “There’s just incredible warmth and welcoming,” she said. She said she appreciates the history, tradition and culture here and that it is “very dynamic ... there’s growth in a variety of sectors. It’s definitely not static.”
At this point, Brewster said there are two main categories of concerns she is looking at as St. Mary’s health officer; key risk factors relating to chronic diseases and access to health care.
Chronic diseases are “rooted in these key risk factors — poor nutrition or inadequate nutrition, sedentary lifestyle and use of tobacco products or exposure to secondhand smoke,” she said.
She said she wants to be a part of a “coordinated communitywide effort to control these factors ... Everyone in the community has a role to play — families, businesses, schools, policymakers.”
Access to health care would include the county’s problem with a shortage of providers in a variety of areas. “There’s quite a significant shortage there,” she said. She suggested that incentives to attract additional physicians to the area are one approach she might use to help with that problem. She also noted that evidence supports the value of local training in keeping medical personnel in an area, and she pointed to the county school’s STEM program as helpful in that regard.
“Early on, I’m listening,” she said. “In the long term, I will be addressing those critical areas I’ve described.”
Brewster said communication will be a No. 1 priority in the health department’s relations to the community. She said she expects to engage a variety of groups in the health department’s initiatives. And she emphasized that those initiatives will be data-based.
“Be informed. Be engaged. Be effective. It’s a motto I will rely on every day in this role,” she said.
Among other connections made during her first weeks on the job, Brewster has been in touch with Fit and Healthy St. Mary’s, a community coalition led by MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital’s Health Connections to help county residents achieve a healthy weight.
“We are extremely excited to have Dr. Brewster,” said Jaclyn Shaw, co-chair of the coalition and operations specialist at Health Connections. “In regard to obesity, she’s going to be a great resource as she has a very strong background in tackling the issue of chronic disease, many of which stem from obesity.”
Brewster has a bachelor of science degree in biology, master’s in public health and doctorate of medicine from the University of Miami in Florida. She is originally from the Harrisburg, Pa., area.
Brewster is married and is the mother of a 1 1/2-year-old daughter.