Two months after Catherine Feuerherm took over as Cortland County’s Public Health director in 2009, suspected swine flu cases began popping up in Cortland. Now, as she is retiring, coronavirus is continuing its spread across the globe.
“In between, we dealt with Ebola and Zika,” she said, while also noting an outbreak of hepatitis C and Legionnaires Disease during her time. “There hasn’t really been a dull moment since I took this job.”
Feuerherm’s last day in a 31-year county career will be March 16. Feuerherm spent most of her childhood in Ireland before coming to Cortland County just after graduating high school. The plan had been to attend Cornell University to become a veterinarian, but one aspect of the job stopped her in her tracks.
“Somewhere along the line, I realized that I’m kind of afraid of dogs,” she said, noting she had been attacked by a dog while riding her bike.
So she went to Tompkins Cortland Community College, where she got an associate’s degree in nursing. Then she went on to get her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from Syracuse University. Finally, she attended SUNY Albany where she received her post-graduate certification in public health.
She worked in pediatrics at then-Cortland Memorial Hospital.
By 1989, she was hired as evening nurse for the county health department. She hasn’t left. Rather, she worked her way through almost every department — early intervention, eventually becoming its director; director of patient services and certified agency. She ran the hospice unit; she ran environmental health. She was a deputy public health director, too, before becoming public health director.
“My job is really to identify the public health needs of the community, collaborate with community agencies, to set goals and outcomes and to meet those outcomes — it is to bring the public health perspective to other program settings,” she said. “Public health in all policies is something we should be striving for everywhere.”
Feuerherm saw success in many ways.
“I’m proud of the fact that we were the fifth county to pass T21,” she said, the 2016 county law banning tobacco sales to anyone under 21. “We were really ahead of that and I thank my chair, Mary Ann Discenza, for supporting that and for taking that through.”
The other success Feuerherm will remember most is the ability to affect policy and be a part of a policy making decision. She did that when she headed a task force meant to investigate what affects there might be from exchanging the county’s trash for ash from an Onondaga County incinerator.
“We looked at the literature and decided that while there was not enough evidence to say that ash is unsafe, but there was not enough evidence to say it was safe,” she said.
Environmental Health Director Mike Ryan said he remembers he and Feuerherm presenting their findings to the Legislature and how Feuerherm was a professional who whole-heartedly understood the need to protect the public’s health.
“One thing that she always focused on, given all those responsibilities and they’re all real, is the people we serve,” Ryan said. “It’s important to her what happens to the public out there, what happens in terms of providing public health. That’s always been her one guiding principal in that she always focuses on what is going to be the risk to the public and what is our responsibility of taking care of the public in terms of public health.”
But with success, comes failures, too.
She said her biggest failure was the “inability to get support for fluoride and right behind that would be the inability to pass regulations related to radon,” at the county level.
In 2016 Feuerherm pushed to have public water supplies in the county fluoridated — something the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists as one of the top 10 health care advances of the 20th Century. Marathon is the only municipality in the county that fluoridates its water.
Feuerherm said over the years she had reached out to the county, city of Cortland and village of Homer to discuss implementing code-based radon regulations like requiring testing at the point of selling a home or mitigation if the levels are high.
She said the possibility of having those regulations aren’t necessarily off the table though. They could be worked on and passed under the next director.
Cortland County has the highest level of radon of any county in the state.
As for what Feuerherm will do during in retirement: a whole lot of nothing at first, then perhaps return to pediatric nursing.
“I just want to sit and enjoy my coffee on my deck in the morning,” the Truxton resident said. “I’ve been on call 24/7 for 11 years. Even when I traveled out of the country I’ve been reachable, so I think it will be kind of nice to just turn off the phone and do nothing.”
She will miss the people she’s worked with and the work she’s done most.
“It’s all about the relationships, whether it’s here in the department or the community collaborations,” she said. “It’s been very meaningful.”
Ryan will miss Feuerherm’s humor, professionalism and receptiveness to people and concepts.
“She’s just really engaged in what she’s doing, in what we’re doing and she has a real genuine interest in what we’re trying to focus on,” he said. It’s a quality he hopes the next director will have.
“I think it’s very, very important that you have that one strong central leadership when you have four or five divisions working together because without that, you’re not working as an effective team,” he said. “She was always focused on the team concept. There was no us and them.”
Ryan also said the next director needs a good medical and science background.
“You can’t just be an administrator, it has to be somebody who really respects public health,” he said.