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A loss for public health

County's health department mourns leader's death


Rosemary Bakes-Martin silenced those who felt she wasnt - qualified. - EL PASO COUNTY
  • El Paso County
  • Rosemary Bakes-Martin silenced those who felt she wasnt qualified.

In some parts of the city, you can still spot white Xs on manhole covers.

The marks date back about six years, when the arrival in Colorado of the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus was big news, recalls John Burrington, a retired physician on the El Paso County Board of Health.

Rosemary Bakes-Martin, who had just become the county's public-health administrator, came up with a strategy to stall the virus by treating or eliminating the stagnant water where the mosquitoes breed. The marks showed places that had been checked, Burrington says, and the plan, which was adopted across the Front Range, kept West Nile cases to a trickle rather than the flood that had been feared.

Such a strategy, Burrington says, was typical of Bakes-Martin, who joined the county Department of Health and Environment in 2000 before serving as its administrator from 2002 until her death last week at 62.

West Nile is seldom in the news anymore, which points to a "Catch-22" for public-health officials: "If you're doing a good job, [people] don't hear anything about it," Burrington says.

The backdrop to Bakes-Martin's tenure is a series of budget cuts that have meant fewer resources to handle the department's many tasks. Interim director Kandi Buckland, who increasingly took a lead role as Bakes-Martin battled cancer, points to statistics showing county funding for the department shrinking from $9.56 per El Paso County resident in 2001 to $5.35 in 2008.

Making her case against further cuts, Buckland has told county officials the department no longer has resources to fight two disease outbreaks at the same time. It can no longer keep up with required health inspections at restaurants and has stopped imposing regulations for body-art businesses and checking on cleanup of meth labs.

Bakes-Martin, who held two master's degrees, one in public health, joined the Health Department after nearly a decade with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. When she was picked to lead the local department in 2002, some were concerned about having a non-physician in that role for the first time, Burrington says.

"Very quickly, those anxieties were allayed," Burrington says.

Buckland says Bakes-Martin was effective moving the department from a clinical approach focused on one-on-one patient care to a population approach, with the broader aim to maximize the health of the whole community.

She was an "amazing" leader and was known for her ability to build partnerships, Buckland says.

Carol Walker, executive vice president of the El Paso County Medical Society, describes Bakes-Martin as a "quiet hero." BJ Scott, president and CEO of Peak Vista Community Health Centers, says Bakes-Martin took a "thoughtful" approach to public health and was fearless when it came to challenges.

Laurie Bakes is the eldest of Bakes-Martin's three children. She says her mother came from the "Kennedy era" and believed it was possible to make a difference in the community.

Outside work, she enjoyed spending time with family and being outdoors, whether hiking or teaching her kids to ski.

"She spent so much time at work," Bakes says, "I don't think people realized she had other interests."

Memorial contributions can be made to: Memorial Health System Foundation
Attn: RPCU 0898, 1519 E. Boulder St., Colorado Springs, CO 80909
"In memory of Rosemary Bakes-Martin"

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