Empathy, common sense key in Waflart’s roleJune 2, 2020
By ALLEN LAMAN
JASPER — From family physician to occupational medicine practitioner, Dr. Ted Waflart has been part of the Dubois County medical community for decades. He recently has stepped out from a largely behind-the-scenes role at the Dubois County Health Department to become a vocal authority on local health and safety.
His quotes can be read in press releases, and his face can be seen in video clips and media interviews centered on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Waflart, who lives in Huntingburg and is the lone county health officer, took an unconventional path to his current position. Now, he feels the responsibility to use his voice as part of a team that informs community residents of how to protect themselves and others from the novel coronavirus.
As of Monday, the countywide total of confirmed COVID-19 cases sat at 202. Seventy-one of those infected have recovered. Three have died.
Waflart’s goal is to spread potentially lifesaving information by appealing to common sense and responsibility. He believes that approach is working.
A career of twists and turns
Waflart’s career actually began as a mechanical engineer in Louisville, Kentucky. He was always interested in motors and things like cars and motorbikes in high school, so it felt like a natural progression for the young man.
His path split at the age of about 27, though, following an argument with his boss. An old engineering school friend made the switch to the medical field, and Waflart looked at how much that friend enjoyed his life and decided he wanted to change his own direction.
“I really hadn’t thought about being a doctor before that,” Waflart said of his realization that the profession would be a good fit for him. “Although, once I thought of it, I really was liking the idea. Because I liked people. I like talking to people. That became the big thing in my mind, was just being a doctor and taking care of people.”
After finishing medical school at the University of Louisville, Waflart came straight to Dubois County and opened his family physician practice in Huntingburg in 1977. He’d thought about going into a specialty area, like cardiology, but he wanted to see and help all different kinds of patients, and family medicine allowed him to do just that.
“I think it was probably more the variety than anything else,” Waflart recalled. “I like taking care of older people, young people, babies — the whole range.”
He had that practice for 25 years, and during that time, his path shifted again — this time to running an occupational medicine clinic through the old St. Joseph’s Hospital in Huntingburg, in addition to seeing patients at his own building.
Occupational medicine struck a chord with him. Waflart came from a working-class family — he was the first in the family to attend college — and being around workers always felt right to him.
“That’s my family,” he said. “And I really felt like occupational medicine, I was sort of defending workers, you might say. I liked that. I felt like occupational medicine is a champion for the workforce.”
He began working full time in occupational medicine and environmental health at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center in Jasper in 2002 before retiring from that post in September 2017. Early on in that stretch of 15 years, Waflart joined the Dubois County Health Department as the county health officer.
Behind the scenes to in the spotlight
Before the pandemic, Waflart said he viewed himself as “an adviser” — someone who would contribute his expertise to the professionals that work at the health department. That changed when the virus began to spread.
His name is now often quoted in print. Sometimes he’s advising people to practice social distancing. Other times he’s mourning the losses of community members who died from the disease.
Still, Waflart stressed that he is not in charge of the local department, which is “committed to prevention efforts that promote and protect our community’s health by serving with dedication, respect and responsibility,” according to its Facebook page.
He instead views himself as a member of a skilled team. He is in most meetings and conference calls the department hosts, “mainly helping to make decisions about what we should do on different issues,” he said.
There have been times where he has had to lead decision-making processes because he holds the health officer title. But Waflart stressed that the nature of the health department is collaborative.
He also said some have misconceptions about his job.
“A lot of people think that the health officer has more power than he really does,” Waflart explained. “They think I can just, oh, if I see something going wrong at a factory or something, I can just close them down, like that. And I don’t have that kind of power. And people don’t understand it.”
He doesn’t use that as an excuse to sit back and do nothing. He gives advice to his team. He voices his concerns, even if they are at odds with what other members of the health department think or feel. And he tries to get the public to listen to the safety measures that he is encouraging.
Getting people to listen
To convince residents to listen to his warnings, Waflart approaches each press release differently. The daily releases are penned by Public Health Nurse Abbey Bieker with input from other health department members, and it’s not unusual for Waflart to be quoted in them.
Through his voice, he treats death notices with empathy, and he appeals to common sense and personal responsibility to urge people to adhere to social distancing and mask-wearing precautions.
Sometimes, when he sets out to instill the importance of following health guidelines, he’s thought about getting “mean and nasty” in his tone, he said, to call out those who aren’t taking the virus seriously. But to date, he has avoided that.
“You don’t convince people by chewing them out,” Waflart said. “That’s not the way to go.”
Health officials in other counties have publicly used wording that mandates or demands their guidelines be followed. Waflart said he doesn’t believe that’s the way to do things.
He would rather ask and recommend.
“And I think we’ve gotten better results by asking and recommending,” Waflart explained. “And trying to convince people the reasons for doing things is a better way to approach it.”
This doesn’t mean he’s letting tips slide without intervention — or that he doesn’t get frustrated when he sees people breaking the guidelines. If the department learns of businesses going against those guidelines, he calls them to set things straight.
He is also aware that not everyone is practicing social distancing or wearing masks in public. In a follow-up interview, he did say that he might get a little harsher with his wording if he hears of an increase in people not adhering to the department’s guidelines.
How we’re doing in Dubois County
Waflart said that in Dubois County, overall, residents are doing a “good job” when it comes to following the guidelines the health department has encouraged.
On the whole, he believes most are “doing the right thing.”
“For the most part, I think people are doing a good job,” Waflart said. “And I don’t want to chastise everybody for the ones who aren’t doing a good job.”
He encouraged readers to continue to practice social distancing, to wash their hands regularly and to wear masks.
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