Division moves to stay healthy

NASHUA – The sign over Stefan Russakow’s door says: Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

The mission of this former Army captain, who once aided refugees in Southeast Asia, is to quicken the pace of the Division of Public Health and Community Services to match changes in the evolving public health field.

He makes the distinction between being a “good leader” and a “good manager.”

“I’d like everybody to be a leader,” Russakow said.

The division had a tumultuous period for nearly a year before Russakow arrived as the new director in April.

There appeared to be a revolving door at the top after longtime director Dolly Bellavance retired in 2002. Three interim directors led the division before Russakow was hired from the Connecticut Department of Public Health, where he directed the state’s childhood lead poisoning prevention program.

Now the division is casting a critical eye at itself, with a project under way to uncover gaps in its work. The goal is to continue an ongoing transition, directing resources and staff to new priorities, Russakow said.

The division has a budget of $3.17 million. It has four departments: community services, public health, environmental health, and welfare. The Welfare Department makes up the largest _part of the division budget.

Russakow credits the nearly 40-member staff at the Mulberry Street office with being the division’s biggest strength.

“Their heart and soul is in Nashua,” he said.

He also recognizes the challenges the city is facing. The division needs to mirror the changes going on in the public health profession, he said.

“We don’t want to duplicate services. That’s not effective,” he said.

Russakow, 53, is a proud “mustang.” He received a direct commission from the rank of Navy petty officer to be an officer in the Army Medical Service Corps.

He clearly relishes the experience, displaying his captain bars on his desk. His phone answering machine announces, “Captain, you have an incoming message.”

Not excited about another overseas posting, Russakow retired from the military in 1988 and joined the civilian ranks as a specialist in environmental health.

He first got experience in public health while serving as a Navy hospital corpsman, an enlisted medical specialist. The Philadelphia native found himself in the Philippines in the mid-1970s, helping Vietnamese who had fled their war-ravaged country.

“It was good to prevent (disease). It was a good feeling,” he said of his time spent serving the refugees.

Mayor Bernie Streeter said Russakow, who lives in Pepperell, Mass., and has a salary of $89,050, is proving himself in the job. This includes handling criticism from aldermen about his division’s oversight of the rooming house at 381 Main St. The Welfare Department got caught up in a dispute about paying to house clients at the facility, which was not properly licensed.

Russakow was appointed to bring change to the division, beefing up its responsibilities for addressing bioterrorism, Streeter said. Handling the aftermath of a terrorist attack – or emergency preparedness, as Russakow prefers to call it – is a new task in a profession that is undergoing a transformation.

For many years, public health workers served the less fortunate. Folks without insurance could see a doctor or dentist, courtesy of the health department.

Now, public health focuses more on broader health issues, such as linking clients to medical services provided by others, disease investigation, and forming community groups to work on public education about health issues.

Russakow said the division had started to move in that direction before he arrived, but more needs to happen.

Last winter, for instance, the division handed over the operation of its child wellness clinic to a private, nonprofit medical group, the Nashua Area Health Center, a division of Lamprey Health Care.

Now a food advisory council is meeting to establish a foundation for a new set of food safety regulations. The division will also be distributing test kits to prevent illnesses from radon gas.

Russakow wants the division to recruit more Spanish speakers to work with the city’s growing Hispanic population. The division also plays a key role in the city’s emergency preparedness plans.

“This department is at the table. This department is sitting very close to the head of the table,” he said.

And if anyone asked why Nashua should be concerned about terrorism, Russakow can point to the “soft targets” that might attract problems. These “soft targets” include a large shopping mall, a major highway, or companies that work in the defense industry.

At the same time, Russakow stresses that the division will never stop providing core services, if there is no other means in the community.

“We need to make sure people get the best service,” he said.