LIBERTY – Educator. Mentor. Learner. Nurse. Mother. Cook. Runner. Animal lover. Relationship builder.
And now Karen Holden can also be called Acting Director of Sullivan County’s Office of Public Health, a role she assumed on March 3.
“I was a little apprehensive,” she admits. “But I don’t think the community knows the full amount of work we do, and I’d like to change that. I want us to be a trusted voice and a trusted resource.”
Few know the amount of work Holden herself has accomplished… and plans on continuing.
Born in Honesdale, Pa. and raised in Cochecton Center, NY, Holden graduated the former Narrowsburg High School (now part of Sullivan West) as salutatorian. She then spent the next four years earning her bachelor’s in nursing at St. John Fisher College in Rochester.
“I always wanted to help people, to give them the dignity, respect and compassion that they deserve,” she explains. “It’s incredibly humbling when you have an ability to change lives for the better.”
She’s done just that over the course of her career, starting off as a nursing assistant and then registered nurse (RN) at Wayne Memorial Hospital in Pennsylvania. She spent nearly two decades with Garnet Medical Center-Catskills (then known as Community General Hospital of Sullivan County and Catskill Regional Medical Center), first as a Charge RN in the emergency room, then as Director of Staff Development, Education and Training, then as Administrator of Quality Management, Performance Improvement and Risk Management, and finally as an educator at and Director of the hospital’s well-regarded 64-bed Skilled Nursing Unit. During that period, she also was an infection preventionist and created the hospital’s Bariatrics Program.
“I worked with some fabulous and compassionate human beings, many of whom I keep in touch with,” Holden affirms.
She also helped train them, both in her roles at the hospital and as an adjunct clinical instructor in the LPN-RN Bridge Program at SUNY Sullivan (where she’s now on the Nursing Advisory Board).
“I’m a nurturer, and I became an educator to stay invested and reinvest in the people we hire.”
Thanks to the recruitment of Deputy Health and Human Services Commissioner Wendy Brown, Holden brought that approach with her when she joined Sullivan County Public Health in 2018 as its Coordinator of Quality and Training. Just a few months later, she became the Director of Patient Services, then the Supervisor of Epidemiology – on March 13, 2020, the day the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns began.
“Everything was shutting down,” she recalls, “and our people were working incredible amounts of hours.”
Her own performance during that strenuous period impressed her superiors, and as the pandemic began fading, Holden was named Deputy Director of Public Health in February 2022.
“I had already been supervising the two largest sections we have in Public Health: Epidemiology and Patient Services,” she relates. “I’ve built good relationships with the people in Public Health and throughout County government, and I have no qualms asking how we can do things better. If what I do is get obstacles out of the way and showcase the greatness in Public Health, I’ve done my job.”
Holden herself will soon be working on earning her master’s in public health, supplementing her RN and LNC (Legal Nurse Consultant) certifications. And she’s still Public Health’s Director of Patient Services and Epidemiology Supervisor, and she just finished a stint as an addiction medicine/methadone maintenance RN at Lexington Center for Recovery in Monticello.
“I don’t think someone who has this much impact on public policy should be too far removed from the people they serve,” she says.
Holden was also a Case Manager at Hospice of Orange and Sullivan.
“Hospice has been the most rewarding nursing I’ve ever done,” she notes. “It’s incredibly humbling to be let into that intimate part of a person’s life. You can lend them and their families the skills and resources they need to manage as effectively as they can.”
Her own family keeps her busy, too. Holden lives with two of her four children in Liberty, along with two dogs, three cats (all rescues) and one goldfish. Twenty-year-old daughter Annalyse is currently a healthcare student at the University of Buffalo, and 16-year-old son Matthew attends Liberty High School. Stepdaughters Arianna (17) and Daniela (16) live in Brooklyn, though she sees them often.
“I also like to travel and find places where people gather and eat,” she explains. “That’s one of the best ways to find common ground amongst all of us.”
That’s when she’s not running. In fact, she’s preparing for a triathlon.
“I did a ‘virtual marathon’ – 26.2 miles on my own – in Liberty a couple years ago,” she recalls with a smile. “All of a sudden, my friends were lining the road, cheering me on, giving me water. There’s still a sign at the ‘finish line’ along the road that says, ‘Karen Rocks!’
“Exercise is a form of self-care,” Holden adds. “I get up at 4 a.m., go to the gym, run, row, lift weights. That enables me to handle the challenges of work and life, because I’ve taken care of myself.”
In turn, she can take care of others.
“Karen is the kind of leader that draws people to her because she’s always invested in their well-being,” observes County Manager Josh Potosek. “The County is fortunate to have her leading Public Health at this time.”
“I’ve been impressed with Karen’s work since she joined Public Health, and I look forward to working with her to continue our successful efforts to definitively and permanently lift our health rankings,” adds Health & Human Services Commissioner John Liddle.
“Karen represents the kind of homegrown talent we need and want in County government,” says District 4 Legislator Nicholas Salomone, who chairs the Legislature’s Health & Human Services Committee. “She sets a great example not just by her professional skills but her commitment to good health and fitness.”
“Anyone who knows me knows I don’t talk the talk without walking the walk,” Holden remarks. “I’ve fallen into a profession that I hope I’ve served as well as it’s served me.”