Fresh out of college and eager to put her nursing training to work, Mary Reech made the trek to Monroe County in the 1950s. She wanted to get a job at the local hospital, but found herself taking a much different path.
Like hundreds of others before and since, Reech joined the staff at the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County as a midwife. It wasn't her first choice, but it became one of the most rewarding decisions she's ever made.
For more than 78 years, health department employees have played a key role in the lives of county residents. They've delivered babies like Reech; they've helped mothers care for their newborns, providing immunizations and medicare care; and they've battled outbreaks of yellow fever, malaria, dengue fever, smallpox and cholera, putting themselves in danger for the benefit of savings thousands of others.
None exemplified that sacrifice more than Florida's first public health officer, Dr. Joseph Yates Porter. Porter was Key West's first native-born physician. When he was appointed state health officer in 1889, epidemics of yellow fever, malaria, dengue fever, smallpox and cholera were causing great suffering in Florida. Combining a strict quarantine system with fumigation, Porter had success in arresting the spread of the diseases.
Porter's work helped build public support for the state's health agency. And for an island chain some 100 miles from the mainland, and the availability of medical care, it was important the county created and maintained a place where locals could go for treatment.
In 1936, the local health department was founded and served about 6,000 people annually. Today, it is still sees thousands of clients in seven clinics, has an $8.3 million budget, but the services are much different.
Over the decades health issues have changed dramatically. Polio and smallpox have been eradicated. Tobacco use, once an acceptable pasttime by society, has evolved into preventative programs to help people kick the smoking habit. And with the explosion of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, much effort is spent on education and preventing the spread of the deadly disease.
And through it all, people like Mary Reech have worked tirelessly to keep Keys residents healthy, and their efforts have not gone unnoticed by an appreciative community.
Mary Reech, 84, had a family to support when she moved to Key West, so she took a job with the health department while waiting for a chance to join the nursing staff at the local hospital, which proved to be more difficult to do than delivering a baby.
The pay? A mere $50 per delivery, she said. "And there were times people couldn't afford to pay us for the delivery, so they didn't."
Still, it was the perfect job while it lasted.
"We went to where they were, anywhere where we were needed," she said. "I still remember Dr. Herman Moore. He would tell us that it was O.K. to deliver the baby, and away we would go."
Eventually, she worked as a nurse's aide at the hospital, though she has good memories of the time spent at the health department, a service that many heavily depended on, she stressed.
"It was important and very impressive to be a midwife," Reech said. "It was something to see a new life come into the world. I loved it."
Vinamea Saunders, 85, spent her most of her career as a third-grade teacher at Douglass Elementary and high school, a segregated school in Key West.
She has memories of the dozens of times she would parade her students down the street to the health department for vaccinations against polio and other diseases. Eventually, the department workers would come to the school, and the kids would line up for their vaccinations, she said.
"The kids needed the shots, and where else were they going to get them?" she asked. "It is what we used the health department for."
And it was free to the children, which was certainly a big help, she said.
For this lifelong Conch and city commissioner, there is no place more important in a community than a clinic and health department. For the past 21 years, he's held several roles as a health department specialist, depending on the needs of the community.
His grandfather was a driving force in getting the Roosevelt Sands Clinic in Bahama Village built in 1994, one that bears his name. The clinic is located in the rear of the Douglass Gym.
As a child of the 1950s and '60s, Lopez remembers the smallpox and polio scare, and lining up on Fleming and Thomas streets outside of the health department building for the shots.
"I have vivid memories of those times," he said Saturday while working at a health fair in Marathon. "Back then, the nurses wore starched uniforms, not like today."
The health department has always been there when needed, he said.
"The outreach was, and still is, incredible. We all depend on it."
If the services were not offered locally, then people would have to travel to Miami or beyond, which is not always possible, Lopez said.
"That is why it is so important for the health department to be strong," he said. "It is teamwork, helping people with whatever they need."
Mechelle Burgohy loves what she does. She is the first to admit her heart is in her job.
As an HIV counselor with the county health department, she is on the streets educating the public about sexually transmitted diseases. If it means handing out condoms, or drawing blood for a free HIV screening, she is totally committed.
But, she is quick to say the health department does so much more, like family planning, immunizations, the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC), and helping with Medicare, just to name a few.
"We reach out into the community," Burgohy said. "It's a one-stop shop."
To do this, the community has to trust the health department, she said.
"They have to know that we are there for them."