Joan Harding Brewster is a woman of many parts.
She is a leader, public health advocate, outdoors enthusiast, Tacoma native, world traveler, book lover, sister, wife, mother, former member of “Up with People” and government official who still believes in the power of people to work together to change the world.
She loves to laugh and jokes that she is the granddaughter of a nun and the only one of her blood siblings who is Irish.
Oh, and she is a stem cell donor whose “Joan clones” helped save the life of her older sister, Jan.
As director of Grays Harbor County Public Health & Social Services Department, she supervises an annual budget of $12 million and “an amazing team” of 37 in a daunting effort to reverse years of chronic ill health and encourage healthy behaviors in thousands of clients served on the Harbor.
“Would that every community had a public health guardian of her caliber,” said Alice Porter, a writer and editor in Seattle, who worked closely with Brewster, who was director of Public Health Systems Planning and Development for the Washington State Department of Health for years. “What made Joan so effective was that she had an ability to articulate policies to keep people healthy as well as the specific steps the public health agencies should take to get there,” Porter said.
“… Though I think she had real power at (the state Department of Health), she was never imperious, and she never took herself overly seriously. I’m pretty sure she was liked and respected by everyone she worked with at DOH,” Porter says.
Brewster came to the Harbor nine years ago on a “twofer” with her husband Ed, who is president of Grays Harbor College. “Being married to him has been a real gift. Thirty-eight years have flown by and I can’t wait to see what we do next. He is an amazing person,” Brewster said.
At first, she commuted to Olympia. She became director of the county health department five and a half years ago, three weeks before a terrible winter storm hit the Harbor in early December of 2007. She and Ed braved the elements and a massive power outage to rescue thousands of dollars of vaccines to refrigerate them at Grays Harbor Community Hospital. A colleague knew she meant business when she found Brewster sporting a headlamp and a clipboard, she laughs.
She and her department, which is slowly recovering from ravaging budget cuts, also faced the H1N1 flu crisis in the winter of 2009-10 when they distributed 72,000 vaccinations countywide. Last year brought an epidemic of pertussis and a massive effort to inoculate the vulnerable.
Brewster often steers conversation to her concern about the grim statistics that show Grays Harbor County at the bottom of many health meta-measurements via a system Brewster helped develop while working in Tacoma and statewide for the Department of Health.
The reality might make a lesser woman buckle. But Brewster believes “communities can set their own destiny in facing what they are confronted by.”
She admires Harborites for their generosity — displayed by such events as the Relay for Life — for their tenacity — in things like paying off the debt of the YMCA quickly — and her staff, for their expertise and ability to overcome a 25 percent cut in staff and a 20 percent reduction in hours.
Her staff just increased by two and full-time is restored. Goals for 2103 are to continue classes in self-health management for the chronically ill, implementing “STEEP” — Steps to Effective Enjoyable Parenting, a program for young mothers and children in critical early years, and renewed efforts to provide clinics where addicts can aim to recover through medical means. She will advocate for more doctors, where the county is woefully under-served.
In the face of county mortality and morbidity statistics, she knows it will take huge effort to encourage people to reverse behaviors leading to diabetes, addiction, lung cancer and chronic pulmonary disease. She points to good news about fewer deaths due to violence, and the good health of children and teens perhaps due to sporting leagues and “a very good YMCA.”
Brewster grew up in the south end of Tacoma and attended her first leadership conference in the 8th grade. Her family spent summers in a camper van on the Satsop River, where she learned to tie flies for trout fishing. She is very close to her younger brother Rob, “a sheet metal worker of terrific excellence,” and older sister Jan, a former senior vice president of Frank Russell Co. They share a lifelong love of books and used to cart shopping bags full of them to family reunions.
Now she and her siblings share via ebooks and compete for who gives the best recommendation.
As a child, she loved to listen to her Irish grandmother Christina Mary Philomena Hayes Eastland sing ballads and spin stories about the auld sod. Her grandmother was a novitiate who left the order to care for family and married, so Brewster still gets “to joke I am the granddaughter of a nun.” Her siblings “couldn’t give a rip” and teased Joan that she was the only one of them who was really Irish.
Stem cells for sister
Four years ago, Jan was diagnosed with leukemia and her siblings were tested as stem cell donors.
“To see your beloved sister with a horrendous illness is really overpowering,” Brewster says. Jan, then 59, was fearful to wait because as she aged she might not have access to a stem cell transplant. Despite chemotherapy, Jan was told “the cancer was eating her for breakfast.” Joan was the closest match. Her sister sent an email.
“’There is good news and bad news. The good news is we are really a close match. The bad news is, it looks like I am Irish after all.”’
Via Group Health and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance “which I can’t say enough good things about,” Brewster was given five days of human growth hormone shots. Blood was taken from both arms, put in a centrifuge to spin out the stems cells, and then was put back. She gave three million more cells than the five million needed.
“I was an overachiever there,” she said.
Two months later, Jan “was still horribly sick, very sick but alive.” The two of them got into an experiment where Joan contributed more stem cells. A different medium was used, and billions and billions of “Joan clones” were grown, and sent in to scrub Jan’s blood of cancer. Brewster was worried it wouldn’t work out this time. “ ‘No, that’s not going to happen,’ ” reassured her elder sister. “ ‘I’m you now, it’s going to be your blood going into my blood which is your blood.’ ”
It all “worked out great, no reaction,” she said.
It was fun as well as a privilege, Brewster said, to be part of “rarefied science, and the fabulous news is that she is doing really well and she is healthy — knock on wood — and (we) get to contribute to that knowledge.”
“The sad thing is that it doesn’t come out that well for everyone.”
One recent Sept. 15 the anniversary of the transplant, Brewster arrived to work to find an expensive bouquet of flowers saying “Happy Birthday.” Her birthday isn’t until June. It was from Jan, sharing her rebirth with her sister.
Throughout the stories Brewster tells, there is evidence of her training: in leadership, theater, demographics, cultural anthropology, clinical work, and graduate school in public administration.
She performed in summer stock in Vermont and at ACT in Seattle, and traveled internationally with Up With People, back when the performing troop was more liberal and not religious.
“I can’t sing well at all” so her mike was turned down and she danced. “I was taller and thinner then.”
Living and dining with host families abroad taught her to look at how people really live. She saw differing views of the United States, then in a protracted war in Vietnam and social upheaval. A World War II veteran in Australia said her own father was a hero because he also served in New Guinea. Brewster learned a different lesson about government when her Catalan hosts drew the curtains before daring to speak about Francisco Franco and the Guardia Civil who held Spain in an iron fist of tyranny.
Realizations on that trip led her to pursue public policy and a degree she devised in public health at the Universtiy of Washington.
Life with Ed
She met Ed when he worked for her mother. “We joke that my mother brought him home to me.”
Marriage has carried them from the Tacoma area to a home they built on Clear Lake near Yelm, and now to Aberdeen. Along the way, she earned a master’s degree in public administration at Pacific Lutheran University. She raised their only son Darren among 125 “big brothers,” dorm residents she supervised while studying. Darren, now 33, works in software and web design in Tacoma.
On Clear Lake, she also studied art with a friend whose watercolor hangs on her office wall. An art studio here at home lies fallow because, though she is a good multi-tasker at work, she needs full concentration for painting.
She and her husband both love the Harbor and can be found walking the beaches of Westport. Ed just got a new bike and she is retrofitting one a friend gave her so she can join him on rides.
They both devote time to sharing their leadership skills, she currently mentors first-year health administrators in a group called the Wee Hour Warriors.
Back to work
Brewster turns time and again to the philosophy she embraced years ago on her travels when she chose a road that reflects her belief in good government and the power of policy and the budget to enact social change. Just look at deaths reduced by seat belts, no smoking areas and other public policies that have worked, she says. We are all part of the same ant hill, she says, “you’ve got to do the work.” Working well with others is key.
Ironically, doing her job well can make it tougher. Healthy people today have forgotten the devastation of past epidemics of polio, measles, mumps and pertsussis which can make it tough to encourage good prevention.
On the Harbor, much needs to be done. And with that, Joan Brewster went back to work.