You may feel like you know Dr. Malcom Butler. As the health officer of the Chelan-Douglas Health District he has become the face of the Wenatchee Valley medical community in the fight to control COVID-19.
His roots go deep in the Valley where he is also the chief medical officer at Columbia Valley Community Health and a longtime family practice doctor.
Earlier this month, The Wenatchee World and Confluence Health recognized Butler for his tireless work for the community with the 2021 Public Life and Leadership Award. Reporter and videographer Luke Hollister sat down with with Butler for a casual video interview before the awards ceremony. You can see a short version of that video here: wwrld.us/Awards.
This is an edited version of the interview, the first of five with community members honored for their work to make a difference in our communities in a historically difficult year. We’ll publish interviews with the other award winners in the Weekender section over the next month.
— Russ Hemphill, Editor
Wenatchee World: What gets you out of bed in the morning? What keeps you going?
Dr. Malcolm Butler: The thing that gets me into work every morning is, I really do feel that I have a very impactful job, or I have opportunities to be very impactful in my work. It’s very challenging work and, certainly, during the pandemic, it’s been a long, long time since I have come home from work and needed to take a nap before I could eat dinner. [chuckles] During the pandemic, I think all of the leaders have just been making so many arbitrary decisions. Really important, impactful, and arbitrary just based on our best judgment on what we know and how we understand things to work. I’ll tell you what, you do that for 10 hours a day, and you just got to take a nap. For sure, it’s an opportunity to be impactful in my community...I would certainly encourage everybody who knows people, who have really had to lay it out there over the last year, or two, stop them and say thank you. I think of my kids as they’re playing video games and their player bumps into one of those life packs and their avatar’s life score goes up a few notches, and those “thank yous” are really impactful, so I appreciate those a lot.
WW: Last year, around March or April, did you have any idea what your were in for?
Butler: No... As a physician, when you hear that there is a pandemic, I think it really captured my attention, more perhaps than an average person, because I do know what that means, and to be invited to help with the response to the pandemic felt pretty huge, and I did not feel qualified, and it has been huge.
One of the gifts I do have is an ability to communicate, and I think that has been something I’ve been able to leverage. Over the last 25, 30 years, I have built an enormous number of relationships in this community. Again, I think I’ve been able to leverage those, but no, I had no idea of how difficult it was going to be, how ugly it got at times, and how deep I was going to have to dig to, really, to find the compassion that was needed for everybody who has been affected by this and all of their ways of expressing themselves and their frustration, it’s been a very big challenge.
WW: How has this pandemic surprised you? What have you seen and not seen coming?
Butler: First off, I was surprised that it ever got here. ...Early on, some of my friends were pretty worried, and I said, “Don’t worry, we’re going to be fine,” and I was wrong. I was way wrong. I have been impressed at the fortitude that we have. The fortitude that we have in our healthcare system, of people who just keep going back day after day after day and helping people who are struggling with this disease. Then they drive home in the evening and they see a community, parts of which just don’t even seem to believe it exists, and they know that they’re going to be asked to care for those same people, should they get ill. Yet the healthcare workers have still gone back to work to carry on.
I have been surprised in many different ways at our elected officials. I’ve been surprised at the amount of commitment that they have to their constituents. I’m basically on speed dial [chuckles] with everybody right now, and they really, really have gone to bat for their constituents, and they really take their work seriously, very seriously. Some have very strong opinions, but every single one I’ve worked with has understood the fight, has understood that, at the end of the day, we’re all on the same team, and we have to keep people safe. I’ve been impressed by that also.
I’ve been very impressed by our business community, the leadership of our business community, and the business leaders who have contacted me and have earnestly said, “I want to do the right thing, and I’m dying here. I need you to help me understand how this can go down,” and they just need to do some reality checking and how engaged they are with their employees and the safety of their employees and the safety of the clientele of their businesses.
WW: Is it frustrating to see people ignore your advice or ignore advice from authorities?
Butler: Yes...At some level, people recognize that this is real, but it seems distant or remote or not part of them until it hits their family. I think smoking is kind of similar. Until you get the cancer or you get the heart attack and then you know you have to make a change. I have learned as a physician to be patient with my patients who continue to smoke even when it’s very clear to everybody that that’s a bad choice. It’s very difficult when we see people who ought to know better taking risks that, worst-case scenario, they get very sick. They’re going to put themselves at risk, but they’re also putting the health care workers at risk. That’s the part that really brings me heartbreak...Yes, it has been frustrating, but at the same time, I think I can offer some grace. I understand how that works.
WW: I know some medical providers have quit during this pandemic. Have you ever been tempted?
Butler: Oh yes. Absolutely. The public health system in the entirety of the United States has been underfunded for years. Originally, it was built when we used to have things like pandemics not infrequently. I think the last time we really spooled up and had to lean on the public health system was during the AIDS epidemic; and then subsequent to that, we had a bit of a tuberculosis epidemic related to the AIDS epidemic, but since that time, most people don’t understand that the health district even exists. They’ve been very understaffed, and then you hit, again, the zombie apocalypse, and its people have been working 60, 80 hour weeks, week after week and have gotten very tired.
I think, also, just the politicization of this pandemic and some of the very strong feelings and vitriol that has been involved, it just takes it out of you. I think you can get up and fight the good fight when you know everybody’s behind you, supporting you, but when you feel that the people you’re trying to protect are throwing mud at you, that has pushed a lot of people out the door.
Again, I think this has been the hardest year of a 30-year career in medicine. It’s been extremely difficult. People have asked me, “Well, why do you keep going?” My answer has always been, “It’s a pandemic. Walking away is not an option in a pandemic, and if I have a skillset which can help to get the message out, and if I can help people make some good decisions, I got to do that. I know we’re going to get through this, I know there’s going to be an endpoint and at that point, I’ll relax for a while...(W) when (World Publisher) Sean (Flaherty) emailed me, I was surprised at my reaction to hearing that I was invited to be recognized in this way. It just felt unfair that I should be recognized, and as I’ve reflected on that, it’s because I know how hard so many people have been working over the past year, and how deep so many people have had to dig just to make it through to the end of the day. It’s the health care workers; it’s the educators; it’s the families of the parents of the kids who are at home; it’s the business leaders; it’s the elected officials, and it just feels a little unfair that I should be singled out in this way.
Again, though, as (As) I’ve said, this has been the most difficult year of my career, and I have had the opportunity to explore the depths of my soul. What I found there was compassion and integrity and fortitude. In a strange way, I feel blessed because it is those gifts that have allowed me to get up every morning and to go back into the fight. I just like to recognize — I will accept this award on behalf of everybody in our community who has had an opportunity over the past year to discover some deep dark places in themselves and have still gone back to the fight.