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In the unprecedented year that was 2020, a local physician put his career on hold and stepped up to the task of overseeing the public health challenges that arose with the worst pandemic in 100 years.

Kittitas County Health Officer Dr. Mark Larson is the Daily Record’s 2020 Person of the Year. Larson has been in the position since 2006 and shifted to a full-time presence at the Kittitas County Public Health Department as the pandemic crept towards the county in March.

REFLECTING ON RELATIONSHIPS

Central Washington University biology professor Daniel Beck said he has known Larson since he moved to Kittitas County in 1997. Over the years, Beck said he has had countless conversations with Larson as both a friend and a colleague, with the subjects ranging from medicine, biology, career paths and life in general.

“He’s helped me connect students with internships in the Open Doors Clinic,” he said. “He helped start that a long time ago. He was one of the founders of the Ellensburg Free Clinic, which was set up to help low-income and underprivileged people get access to medical care.”

Along with getting the clinic off the ground, Beck said Larson has excelled in working with patients within the community, saying the level of care, dedication and giving shown by him has been above and beyond. Beck said he has even personally benefited from that giving nature, recounting a time he was in extreme pain from a shoulder injury and his own doctor was out of town.

“I was getting ready to go on a river trip, and I was on the floor of my office on campus in pain,” he said. “Dr. Larson came to campus, walked into my office, got me diagnosed and helped me get some medicine. It was amazing how he went out of his way, and he didn’t do that because I was a friend. He did it because I needed his help. He does this kind of thing for people, and he has been doing it for years. He’s one of the most caring and thoughtful people I’ve ever known.”

With the giving nature shown by Larson over the years, Beck said the community is beyond lucky to have him in the position he is at with Public Health during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s just his personality and his expertise,” he said. “He has very broad interests in both medicine and science. He thinks outside of the box and he works with all kinds of different people. This whole thing has turned into a political issue, and I think he has done a good job putting that aside and focusing on the health of people in our community.”

THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES

Kittitas County Public Health Administrator Tristen Lamb has been working alongside Larson for over six years in a variety of roles, going back to when she began her tenure at Public Health as a food inspector. When she started, she said she had no idea what a Health Officer was, but she was intimidated to meet the man that would eventually become her pandemic counterpart. Their first meeting alleviated that anxiety, however.

“He asked me about my kids,” she said. “He told me that when he first started working for Public Health, one of the things that he first remembered was going out on a food inspection. He said he will never forget that food inspection. I have a memory of Dr. L before we worked closely together never acting like what he did was more important than anything anybody else was doing.”

As their professional relationship has evolved, Lamb said she has continuously enjoyed working with Larson. Until March, she said they would check in with each other once a week while Larson was working in the position part-time. Outside of work, she said the friendship included spending time with each other’s families during the holidays. Over the years, she said they have developed a solid working relationship that has proved to be crucial as the county deals with the current pandemic.

“When COVID hit, we were sitting together in a room in the Emergency Operations Center working on the hardest thing we’ve ever done for a minimum of 50 hours a week for many months,” she said. “That will put strains on a relationship, no matter how positive. We had to make some really hard decisions in the beginning. Boy, did we go from cordial colleagues to war buddies real fast.”

Lamb said one of the major benefits to her ability to work so well with Larson during the pandemic was that he was physically on the ground in Ellensburg at all times, a luxury many rural counties are not able to afford.

“He’s not a phone-in or send a signature Health Officer,” she said. “He’s doing the work and he knows the community. He helps us in our community partnerships with our clinical partners because he’s been a medical practitioner her for decades. That’s been the biggest thing is how lucky we are to have a Health Officer that’s not just an academic doctor living on the West Side.”

THREE DECADES OF FRIENDSHIP

“He is a very impressive person,” Dr. John Merrill-Steskal said of Larson. “He is dedicated to doing the right thing and taking care of people.”

Merrill-Steskal met Larson in the late 1980s while both were in medical school at the University of Kansas-Kansas City. Over the years, the two have worked together in the Valley Clinic and at Kittitas Valley Healthcare’s Family Clinic in Ellensburg. As a physician, Merrill-Steskal said Larson always goes the extra mile for his patients.

“He works hard to help support his colleagues. He’s a team player and an all-around great physician,” he said. “As a friend, you couldn’t ask for a better and more dependable one. He’s always been there for me.”

Outside of work, Merrill-Steskal said he and Larson have literally climbed mountains together and have enjoyed many a Thanksgiving together with their families.

“We’ve shared a lot through our lives,” he said. “It’s only reinforced the notion of what an impressive person he is. He is a gem and an asset to our community, not only as a physician taking care of people but also how he has risen to the occasion as a Public Health Officer.”

With all the challenges that have come to the surface over the past year, Merrill-Steskal said the ability to keep a clear head through the rapidly changing medical and political atmosphere is an asset that Larson has been able to display in full force.

“He’s put in countless hours, often by himself and often with negative comments from community neighbors, despite working hard to keep people healthy and do the right thing,” he said. “He’s had a clear vision of what the correct public health interventions have been and is also sensitive to how this pandemic has hurt business owners and how the social isolation has affected people. That’s weighed heavily on his mind.”

As Larson continues to soldier on, Beck said his work ethic will prevail for as long as it is needed under the current circumstances and beyond.

“His hard work has shown through,” he said. “He would probably say he is a workaholic, but I don’t know if I would agree with that, as much as I would say that he is just very dedicated to keeping our community healthy, being a true friend and taking care of his patients as a family physician.”

A COMMUNITY EFFORT

In an interview with the Daily Record, Larson said the success in keeping students in school and keeping case numbers down within the county through the pandemic is something the entire community must take credit for.

“I think it’s a function of us all working together as a community,” he said.

Reflecting on the lessons learned during the pandemic, Larson said he hopes social gaps in the community will be addressed, using access to internet for underprivileged families and the effect it has had on online learning success as an example.

“Those have always been things that have been in my heart from the beginning,” he said. “They’ve just become more solid.”

Larson said he regularly thinks about going back to practicing medicine, saying that he misses the emotional satisfaction of doing so. At the moment however, he said there are simply too many responsibilities related to keeping the county on a steady course through the pandemic. Until the responsibilities are fulfilled, he said he will stay right where he is.

“The work still has to be done,” he said. “I’d like to get back to seeing patients. The thing I’ve missed the most in the last 10 months is seeing patients in the clinic and those relationships I have built over the last 22 years.”

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