Dr. Val Arkoosh, Chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, speaks with MONTCO Today about growing up in Omaha, summering in Laramie, Wyoming, and how a brief medical scare as a child sparked her interest in becoming a doctor.
A “C” in chemistry after her first semester at Northwestern awakened her to the academic rigor of her chosen major, but her passion for academics propelled her into medical school. She eventually landed a residency at Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia, and much to the delight of scores of patients, she never left the area.
Where did you grow up, Commissioner Arkoosh?
I was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, the youngest of three children. My mom was a traditional homemaker who was involved in a lot of charitable community activities. My dad owned a small manufacturing company that made food packaging products.
How much of an age difference was there between you and your oldest sibling?
I was a little bit of an accident! My sister was 18 years old when I was born, and my older brother was 15. My parents dropped off my older sister for her freshman year in college, and three weeks later I came along.
What memories do you have of growing up in Omaha?
Since my brother was still at home when I was growing up, he and I were very close. I didn’t get to know my sister until I was older because she moved to California after college.
Omaha itself was a great place to grow up, except back then, Omaha was a very homogenous city: almost everybody was white, and almost everybody was middle-class. My high school graduating class had 760 or so seniors and only one person of color.
What activities did you do in high school?
I was very involved in student government and served as a Class Officer my Junior year. I was also on the Drill Squad and played the piano. I knew in high school that I wanted to go to medical school so my number one focus was on academics. I did go on a school skiing trip to Colorado which launched a life-long love of skiing.
What was it about skiing that hooked you?
My dad grew up in Laramie, Wyoming and we would go to Laramie every summer to visit his family. I loved being outside and of course the beauty. Wherever there’s a ski slope, there’s usually wonderful scenery as well. I also appreciate skiing as a quiet sport with no motor involved.
What kind of music were you listening too back then, Val?
I listened to everything from The Beatles to The Carpenters to Meatloaf and Pink Floyd. I loved Neil Young’s Harvest Moon album.
Were you a good student?
I was. I always had quite a drive to do well.
Where did that drive to do well in school come from?
Both my parents were extremely bright and pushed us kids at school. Had my mother been born at a different time, I’m sure she would have had her own career.
I also had a brief medical scare when I was six years old that landed me in the hospital for several days. The scare turned out to be nothing but the experience sparked my interest in becoming a physician. My dad wanted me to become a lawyer and come into the business with him. But I was intrigued by how the doctors I saw at the hospital helped me, and I wanted to do that for other children and families.
Where did you go to college when you graduated from high school in 1978?
I looked at several schools but felt so comfortable when I visited Northwestern University in Chicago that I made a gut decision to attend Northwestern. The campus felt like a comfortable pair of slippers.
What was your major?
I knew I wanted to be a doctor, but because my father had his own business and I wanted to understand more about business, I majored in Economics.
Did Northwestern end up being a good choice for you?
I loved it. The first year was tough. The first trimester I got a “C” in Chemistry. Getting a C was quite a wake-up call for me. I had never gotten a “C” in anything. I had always done well in high school. At Northwestern, however, I found myself studying with students from all over the country, many of them from high-powered prep schools. Suddenly the academic rigor and the competition were much higher.
What did you do after graduation?
I applied to many medical schools and got into one, the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. One acceptance was all I needed. It was both interesting and difficult applying to medical school in the early 80’s. The medical profession harbored skepticism about female medical students.
The thinking was that a woman would go to medical school and likely get married and start a family and no longer practice medicine. There was an undercurrent and sometimes outright explicit sense a woman medical student was taking the place of a male student.
How did you get from medical school in Omaha to living and working in Montgomery County?
I loved living in Chicago during college and missed the big city when I went back to Omaha for medical school. I also noticed that there were not a lot of female role models at my medical school. I interviewed with a number of residency programs in Chicago and up and down the East Coast and matched at Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia.
What were your first impressions of Philadelphia?
When I moved here in 1986, I fell in love with Philadelphia and loved everything about the city. It was so cool to drive to the ocean in an hour, something unthinkable back in Omaha. I loved Philly’s diversity, the fact I could walk so many places and how close I was to places like New York City and Washington, DC. I loved everything about Philadelphia!
Did you stay in Philadelphia after your residency?
After my residency, I stayed on at faculty at Jefferson specializing in Obstetrics. I spent a lot of my clinical time on the labor and delivery floor of Jefferson. After a couple of years, Allegheny Univerisity of the Health Sciences (AUHS) recruited me to be the site chief of their Hospital for Women on City Line Avenue.
It was also during this time that I met my husband. He was born and raised in Abington. It was an easy sell to get me to move into Montgomery County where we have lived happily in the same house for the last 20 years in a community we love.
Was this your first leadership role?
I served on student government in high school and was involved in activities at Northwestern, was very interested in and did the clinical research required to get promoted at Jefferson and I like organizing and bringing people together to solve problems.
Was the experience opening the Hospital for Women what you expected?
Opening up the hospital was unbelievably complicated and required every scrap of my leadership ability. In the summer of 1998, eighteen months after I took the job, AUHS went bankrupt. Money was incredibly short meaning we were chronically short on supplies every single day. The situation reminded me of the medical missionary work I had done in Kenya. We never ran out of anything, but we came close.
About six months after the system emerged from bankruptcy, I was asked to serve as Interim Chair of my Department. I eventually was offered the permanent position and served in this role for the next five years.
After seven years working at Allegheny, I began to notice my patients were experiencing health challenges they hadn’t had in previous years. More and more of my patients didn’t have health insurance, were obese, lived in neighborhoods that didn’t have grocery stores, and had trouble finding good jobs. I had a few Dads who missed the birth of their child because they were afraid to call out sick from work. These social issues were affecting the health of my patients.
Had you always been socially aware or was this an awakening period for you?
Yes, but these new challenges brought a sense of urgency to my awareness. What motivated me was I saw my patients’ challenges were having a direct impact on their health. The most frustrating part for me was I couldn’t fix the problem.
What did you do?
In the Fall of 2004, I took a part-time faculty position at Penn, enrolled in Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and got a Masters degree in Public Health with a focus on U.S. Health policy. The Johns Hopkins program connected a whole lot of dots for me and changed my career trajectory.
For the first time, I had a deep understanding of the connection between public policy and people’s health and the critically important role policy played on health.
Decisions about the environment, transportation, food, and food safety including access to locally grown healthy food, were as important, if not more important, to people’s health as access to affordable healthcare.
At some level I knew all those things but, as a physician focused on providing health care to my patients, I didn’t fully appreciate how the decisions made at the policy level impacted individual health.
What did you do with this new understanding?
It set me on a different path. I still continued to treat patients part-time but began to look for a place I could focus on public health issues. Coincidently, I met then-Senator Barack Obama in 2007 at an event in Philadelphia and had a chance to talk with him for 15 minutes about my new-found passion for public health.
At the same time, a colleague told me about an organization called the National Physicians Alliance (NPA) she and her husband had just launched. At the core of NPA’s mission is the belief that healthcare is a human right and that everybody should have access to affordable healthcare. I joined their board and several years later became president of the Alliance.
When Obama became president in 2009, I became very involved in his signature healthcare legislation and began, representing NPA, to spend two days a week in Washington as part of a large coalition of organizations working on health policy and legislative strategy. I didn’t have a front-row seat on the formulation of what has become known as Obamacare, but I certainly had a second-row seat!
Throughout that process, I was speaking on television, speaking at rallies and penning op-eds. People started telling me I should think about running for office. I’m a policy wonk at heart and had never given any thought to being a policymaker.
In 2014, Allison Schwartz, my Congresswoman, decided to run for Governor. I decided to jump into what was a crowded Democratic primary race for her soon-to-be vacant seat. Although I raised the most money, ran a campaign I’m still proud of to this day and got a very enthusiastic endorsement from the Inquirer, I didn’t win. It was a great experience and I was still committed to public service, but I didn’t know what I was going to do next.
In January 2015, two months after the election and a week after I told Penn I would be leaving my part-time faculty position, then Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro called to invite me to submit my name for a soon-to-be vacant position on the county’s Board of Commissioners.
The Montgomery County Judges tasked with filling the position selected me, and four weeks later I was sworn in as County Commissioner. 2015 was an election year and a week later I back on the campaign trail.
What are you focused on in 2017?
I focus every day on looking forward. I do that using data and an understanding of what’s important to our community.
My overarching goal is to make every community in Montgomery County healthier. Health is impacted by every single decision that we make. If something is good for health, it stands to reason it will be good for the entire community. That includes making sure residents of the County have access to good-paying jobs, that people can get to those jobs, that residents of the county have access to healthy foods, and that our environment is clean.
I’m working with SEPTA to make sure people have access to public transportation. One of the biggest projects we’re working on is extending the high-speed rail from Norristown to King of Prussia.
We have preserved over 155 farms in Montgomery County and are always looking for ways to connect the local farmers with community farm markets all over the county.
Several weeks ago we announced an exciting multi-agency project of rolling out LED street lamps to eleven Montgomery County municipalities. The new street lights will dramatically reduce energy usage, take 5,500 metric tons of carbon out of the air over the next decade, save money and create jobs for the construction workers hired to install the lamps.
What about you personally? What are focused on in 2017?
Carving out family time is a daily challenge. My husband Jeff and I are really busy. My oldest child is a Junior in high school, so we’re paying a lot of attention to filling out college applications and plan on visiting several college campuses this summer.
Finally, Val, what is the best piece of advice you ever received?
When I was a junior in high school, I wrote a book report in AP History class that I thought was pretty good. Mr. Karr, my teacher, called me into his office and said my book report was a piece of junk and wasn’t what I was capable of. The book report was adequate to be sure. He sensed I had written it on the back of the envelope and not given it my best. His scolding for underachieving and not living up to my potential had a real impact on me. I never forgot the experience.