Note: This story appears in the Tuesday, Sept. 17 newspaper on Page A1.

Editor’s Note: Each year, the Red Cross of Southeastern Ohio honors local residents and groups as part of the Hometown Heroes program. Our 2019 series begins today.

After all the years of teaching, all the boards served upon and even his retirement following 35 years as a pediatrician, Dr. James Gaskell finds plenty of ways to stay busy.

“At a time when most of us are slowing down,” an admirer wrote, “(Gaskell) continues to serve his community.”

For that effort, the American Red Cross is honoring Gaskell as this year’s Healthcare Hero.

He’s busy indeed; when recently contacted about the award, the longtime Athens City-County Health Commissioner was in Columbus for what he calls a “harm reduction conference” — a gathering dealing with the spread of infectious diseases.

That is Gaskell’s favorite part of healthcare, what has kept him going all these years: problem solving. He came to Athens in 1970, working at first in Dr. Alan Baldwin’s pediatric practice.

“I loved practicing, because it’s problem solving,” Gaskell recalled. “There’s something magical about the patient-doctor relationship.”

He retired from that practice in 2005. Along the way, he served as the Athens City School District’s physician; served as O’Bleness Hospital Chief of Pediatrics; and taught at the Ohio University College of Medicine.

His attention is now focused primarily on his role as the city-county health commissioner, a position he’s held since 1999. The health department has played an active role in responding to the opioid epidemic in recent years.

A few years ago, the department partnered with the Athens-Hocking Vinton 317 Board to initiate Project DAWN (Deaths Avoided With Naloxone). The health department offers overdose-reversing naloxone equipment and training both to individuals and public agencies alike.

The Messenger featured the Waterloo Twp. Volunteer Fire Dept. in a news story last year after its 21 firefighters completed Project DAWN training with the health department. This trained the firefighters how to administer naloxone medication should it be necessary to save someone’s life.

Gaskell also led his department’s effort to create a needle exchange program. This was done after the department reported a sharp increase in the number of Hepatitis C cases in Athens County.

Dirty needles are exchanged with clean ones at a weekly clinic, with officials providing participants with health screenings, immunizations, addiction services and Project DAWN training. In part thanks to this program, the number of Hepatitis C cases reported in Athens County went from 180 in 2015 to 98 last year.

“I think our exchange program has been successful,” Gaskell said, hoping that his attendance at statewide health conferences could allow the local department to serve as a model.

Robert Frey nominated Gaskell to receive this Hometown Hero award. In his letter, Frey described the doctor’s myriad of professional and civic achievements over the past 50 years — from being president of the Athens County Medical Society to coaching youth softball teams to traveling with the First United Methodist Church’s mission team to Honduras. Gaskell also served on numerous boards and throughout his life, including for the Boy Scouts, the Athens High School Athletic Boosters, Little League, the Athens Foundation, the 317 Board and Live Healthy Appalachia, among many others.

Gaskell credits his wife, Barbara, and three children Sarah, Susan and David for their love and for accommodating his busy schedule in Athens.

“I’m really grateful for this recognition,” he said, adding that “the real heroes are my wife and children, who have put up with me and supported me for all these years.”

The Healthcare Hero Award is sponsored this year by OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital. Gaskell and eight other Hometown Heroes will be honored at a banquet on Thursday, Oct. 3 at Christ Community Wesleyan Church, Albany. Tickets are available through Sept. 30 at the Athens chapter office (100 S. May Ave.).

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