By the end of this month, a combined 75 years of exemplary caregiving, strong leadership, and clinical knowledge will depart from the LincolnHealth team when two of the best retire at the end of the month.
Dr. Russell Mack, senior consultant, and registered nurse Karen Howell, manager of surgical services, are entering a new chapter in their respective lives. Mack and Howell will spend their last day at work July 24. It seems almost fitting that the two retire at the same time, since they spent so many years working side by side in surgical services.
“When you look back at the history of Miles Memorial Hospital and LincolnHealth, Russ and Karen are two of the cornerstones,’’ said Jim Donovan, president of LincolnHealth. “They helped lead Miles and LincolnHealth through dramatic and at times tumultuous changes in health care.
“Their leadership through the years played a very large role in shaping the excellence that defines the organization today. Their dedication, compassion, and unwavering commitment to high-quality patient care set the tone for their teams and the organization as a whole.”
Miles Memorial Hospital welcomed Mack, a young physician from Chicago, in 1980 when he moved to Maine on the recommendation of a friend who lived in Bath. A big-city guy who thought Kalamazoo, Mich., with a population of 80,000 in 1980, was tiny, found himself in Lincoln County, with a population of about 25,000.
“The transition was so easy, I couldn’t believe it,’’ Mack said. “I was so busy at work and I found the work and the area really enjoyable.”
Mack hit the ground running when he took over Dr. George Bostwick’s family medicine practice. Unlike family physicians today, Mack actively provided care in the hospital and delivered more than 300 babies. In fact, some of those who are LincolnHealth care team members today were guided into this world by Mack.
“I had an office right at the hospital, which led to more deliveries,” he said. “And I was the only one with airway skills who could intubate people. There were many runs in an ambulance to Portland with emergency medical services in those days.”
Looking back, Mack credits the late surgeon Dr. Frank Avantaggio for setting the tone for the high-quality care that became synonymous with Miles and LincolnHealth.
“This place was really special in that there was great camaraderie on the medical staff. We sat down every Tuesday in a room that was a solarium. We would go through every patient’s medical record and discuss it,” he said. “If the other docs thought you should be doing something different or better, they’d tell you so.”
A group of young internal medicine specialists who trained in New York – John Vinton, Mary Ann Chase, and Richard Brody – started at Miles Memorial about the same time as Mack, and the transformation to modern-day medicine began.
“Our advancement to becoming a modern hospital is what I’m most proud of,” Mack said. “We had really good doctors but were behind with modern techniques and modern practices. We moved to modern practices and kept our quality really high. We set the tone and today, we can match anybody in the types of services we provide here.”
Mack had shown an interest in anesthesiology while in medical school, so when that service needed support at Miles, he juggled his family medicine practice with anesthesiology. Later, when he recruited Dr. Chip Teel to take over his family medicine practice, he left Miles to complete the anesthesiology residency program at Maine Medical Center.
“We began doing more things that required anesthesia, and I was not comfortable with my abilities, so I went back to school,” he said. Mack spent some time working at Pen Bay and Maine Med after completing his residency before returning to Miles in 1994 as a full-time anesthesiologist – a service he provided until February 2019.
Over the years, he worked with some outstanding doctors and surgeons while alongside the manager of surgical services, Howell.
“Along with his commitment, kindness, and integrity, Dr. Mack is a man of science,” Howell said. “Whenever I had an idea, he would always say, ‘show me the science,’ and if I couldn’t, my idea was put on hold. In a crisis situation, he knew just what to do in a calm and quiet manner.
“He is probably the only anesthesiologist I know who had an espresso maker in his office, and he would play light jazz or opera in the afternoon. The music quietly filled the hallway and soothed us all.”
Mack made many contributions to hospital leadership during his career. He has served as chief medical officer on two separate occasions, as well as medical staff president. He has played key roles in multiple medical leadership transitions over the years and from 2016-2018, he co-chaired the fundraising campaign that supported the construction of the Watson Health Center.
Dr. Mack and his wife, Kathy, an artist, have no plans to leave their Round Pond residence. It is where they raised their children and where they want to be in retirement. As has been the case for many years, they will spend time each year in Umbertide, a small village in Italy around the size of Brunswick.
Fortunately for LincolnHealth, he will continue to play an important role as a member of the LincolnHealth Board of Trustees.
As legend has it, Howell knew she wanted to be a nurse when she was 6 years old. She pursued that pathway and graduated from the Hartford School of Nursing in 1973. Karen began her career as a psychiatric nurse before moving on to Maine Medical Center to work on a dialysis unit in 1979.
She moved to Nobleboro after marrying her husband, Barry, and the Howells still live on the 150-acre family farm on the Damariscotta Lake that has been in the family since the end of the Civil War.
The commute to Portland after the arrival of her three children proved to be challenging, so Howell joined Miles Memorial Hospital in 1985 as the nurse manager of the emergency department.
“If you came to the emergency department at night, you rang a bell and someone opened the locked door and let you in,’’ Howell said. “I loved the emergency room because there was so much variety in patient care and the pace was fast.”
“The ED is the first place many people go when they come to a hospital, so the care we provided was important to our reputation,” she said. “Working with emergency medical services teams was so rewarding. They work so hard in the community. We were able to build a strong relationship and bring our services to a higher standard.”
Howell’s talents and leadership skills moved her up the career ladder. She was the vice president of patient care services for eight years, but missed the daily connection to patient care and stepped down, returning to a staff nurse’s role in the operating room in 2002.
“I worked with many great people, but I didn’t like dealing with policy and being involved in upper-level administration. I found that I enjoyed middle management because it allowed me to advocate for patients, help with patient care, and advocate for employees,” Howell said. “Two areas of total commitment for me were advocating for safe patient care and the well-being of all employees.”
In 2004, Howell became the nurse manager of the operating room and has been there ever since.
“Our patients place their total trust in us while they are asleep during their procedures,” she said. “I always made sure that my staff and I respected each individual and did all the right things to care for them in a gentle way.”
While beginning her career in the city, Howell said she appreciated the opportunity to care for people in her community.
“We were caring for the people we lived with and their families,’’ she said. “You knew so many more people than you didn’t know, which made the job even more special.”
Mack praised Howell for her leadership and compassion. “Karen ran a department that had talented but unique personalities and she got them to work as a team,” he said. “She did this in an environment of limited resources, especially space, and she did so with grace and empathy.”
Chief Nursing Officer Christine Anderson said Howell is one of the most thoughtful individuals she has ever known.
“I will miss her aura of steady calm, her great sense of humor, and her extensive knowledge of surgical services,” Anderson said. “Her contributions to our patients and our teams are too many to list. I hope her legacy brings her comfort and peace in her retirement.”
Howell’s retirement plans revolve around relaxation and family.
“There are endless books to read, and I’m looking forward to time with my husband, children, and grandchildren,’’ she said. “I’d like to get a pontoon boat and enjoy being out on Damariscotta Lake.”
Both Howell and Mack recognize that the time for retirement is right.
“We all work very hard and sacrifice a lot of family time and energy for the professions we’re in,’’ Howell said. “I feel like I’ve done the best that I could, and that it’s time to relax.”
“I have no qualms leaving because I know that this place is in excellent hands and in a great place,” Mack said. He also noted that he’ll think about what to do in retirement “once he gets there.”