By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer
Like a good belly laugh, it’s amazing how the good work of one person can spread to others.
For over a generation of Knox Countians, Susan Liford’s been one of those whose career, understanding and compassion has helped thousands of people and their families to live better, healthier lives.
Her contributions first came with the old Knox County Hospital — the building’s now the Ramsey Center for Health and Natural Sciences at Union College — and then the Knox County Health Department, where she’s presently the director.
But that won’t be the case later this year, as Liford will retire after a health career that’s lasted 39 years.
“I’ve given them a resignation notice, effective Nov. 1st of this year, and they’re already advertising for my successor. They’re accepting applications until July 31st at the Knox County Board of Health. They’d like to have somebody there who I can work, and help them get acquainted with the position before I leave,” she said Wednesday during a phone interview from her Barbourville office.
Although Liford was born just down the road in Pineville, the Bell County native had some strong influences in Knox County, thanks to her parents. And that connection continues to this day.
“The year I was born was 1954. My daddy was the Dean of the Graduate School at Union College. And my mother who everybody knew, Virginia Lucille ‘Syd’ Robbins, was a school nurse at the college, and also a nurse at the Knox County Health Department. She was a clinic nurse, and in fact, she retired there. So some say I followed in my mother’s footsteps,” she pointed out.
Which Liford did, starting in 1972. At first, she started working at the hospital in Barbourville before she went to school at Union.
It was her first experience in the field of public health.
“I was an aide in surgery at the old hospital which was just off campus, and then I got a scholarship under the hospital’s administrator, Charles Dixon. That’s how I got into nursing, and that led to working at the hospital for 17 years. During that time, I also got married, had two children, and my husband was a truck driver. Someone needed to be at home with the kids. But I wanted something more family-friendly, as far as hours go. So, eventually I ended up at the health department. That happened in 1992, when I came there. Yes, you could say it was a case of ‘Like Mother, Like Daughter,’” said Liford.
Inside the hospital walls in those early days, there was another person who would impact and influence her life for years to come.
“I was working at that time under Ray Canady, the administrator at the hospital back then. When I went in to give my resignation and notice from the hospital, he understood. So I got my first job in home health at the Knox County Health Department. … I loved home health, making home visits, and my primary territory was in the Flat Lick - Stinking Creek - Himyar area. Those people in that area up there are such wonderful, very appreciative folks. And you know what’s funny? About two months later, after I began my job in home health, Ray Canady moved to the health department as director,” Liford noted.
Six years later, an opening came in the department for the job of Public Health Supervisor. She moved into that position, replacing Judy Kelly, who still works for the Knox County Health Department as a nurse at the Appalachian Children’s Home in Barbourville.
Liford would stay in that position until 2008.
“In 2008, Ray Canady retired, and I applied for the Director’s job at the Health Department and got it,” she said.
Today, Canady is the CEO/Administrator of the current Knox County Hospital, now located in the southeast end of town on Hospital Drive.
With Liford at the helm, she states the health department has strengthened its role as a place for information, for public education, and as a leader in the community.
“I think you can make a difference with the health of the community in the last few years. We’ve instituted our health coalition, and we’ve written a grant through the health department to get exercise equipment at Thompson Park. We’ve also worked on getting a ban on smoking in public places in Barbourville, and while it’s not official, many of the public places in town have opted to go smoke-free. Also, our teen pregnancy rate has gone down, our health rankings have improved, and our immunization rate for our children has improved,” I’m proud of that,” she said.
Liford’s equally proud of the department’s role in taking steps in disease prevention, as opposed to disease treatment.
She added, “What I also like about what we do is that we do ‘preventive health.’ We’re not a hospital, but we can give advice on things they may not have known, like a patient having high blood pressure, or a low blood count, or a lump in the breast, which they can follow up on with their private physician. When we had the H1N1 outbreak discovered in 2010, we set up clinics all over the county, went to different sites, and had mass immunizations. That’s the preparedness component of public health. That’s preventive health.”
They say change is inevitable, and Liford’s seen plenty of them in all or parts of five decades of her career in healthcare. She added the biggest change came just three years ago, with its effects still having shockwaves in many areas.
“The biggest change I’ve seen has been managed care in 2011. That’s when traditional Medicaid was taken over by managed care companies. In our case, funding from the state level and some from the federal level has decreased. That’s affected our operations, as it has with other health departments. A prime example was the school health program, which was reduced in 2012, and by 2014 we were out of it altogether. The school districts now have their own programs. We really wanted to keep that program, but managed care reduced the reimbursement that we were getting to do the program, and it happened pretty much across the state,” she said.
At this point in her life, Susan Liford’s ready to step down from a long and rewarding career in health care, but at the same time she doesn’t have any plans made.
She says she’ll join her husband Vernon in retirement. The couple have been married for 32 years, and at some point, she and him might get a hankering to take to the open road.
In that case, there’s plenty of miles to explore, in between our vast nation’s oceans and borders.
And, in a few months, she’ll have another milestone to cherish.
“I’ll probably do some traveling as well. I want to see the good ole United States, and if I ever go to one place, I want to see Mount Rushmore. And I am getting a new grand baby in January 2015. I have two grandchildren through a stepson. I’m their ‘Nana.’ So 2015’s going to be a good year to be a babysitter,” she explained.
After 39-year career, Knox County’s health director says it’s time to relax
By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer
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