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In Sickness and in Health

Dr. Tisha Dowe survived the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. But can she survive Colorado Springs politics?

She climbed up into the back of the pickup and looked down at dozens of anxious faces. They could hear the sirens screaming several blocks away, where dust still hung in the air above the shattered building.

That's where these doctors, nurses and medical workers needed to be right now. It was up to this woman, who even in her white clinician's coat looked like someone's middle-aged mom, to tell them what to do.

What am I doing here?, Dr. Tisha Dowe wondered as she asked for everyone's attention. Where's the doctor who said he was in charge?

A helping hand: Dr. Tisha Dowe learned early to take responsibility.
A helping hand: Dr. Tisha Dowe learned early to take responsibility.
A helping hand: Dr. Tisha Dowe learned early to take responsibility.
Anthony Camera
A helping hand: Dr. Tisha Dowe learned early to take responsibility.

It was April 19, 1995. Dowe, director of the Oklahoma Department of Health's Maternal and Child Health Division, had arrived at her office in downtown Oklahoma City just an hour before, expecting a normal day on the job. Now she was trying to organize some 300 volunteer doctors, nurses and EMTs who'd responded to the scene of this country's most devastating act of terrorism: the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Her boss, friend and mentor at the department, Dr. Sara Depersio, had warned Dowe not to go to the bombing site. It was dangerous, she said, and surely somebody else's responsibility.

But Dowe had been raised by a man who'd never turned his back when someone needed help. A man who'd never met a stranger in his life. A man whose neighbors relied on him in a crisis because he'd know what to do. He was also the man who had been the impetus behind Dowe's decision to become a doctor. Without the memory of her father looking over her shoulder, she wouldn't have been there to help, to organize teams to go into that horror.

Four years later, Dowe wipes her eyes and asks for a moment to regain her composure. As the newest director of the El Paso County Department of Health, headquartered in Colorado Springs, she may have just stepped into the toughest public-health job in the state -- politically, at least. Her predecessor lasted sixteen months; his predecessor had been chased into retirement by an increasingly hostile and conservative board of health, goaded on by the Christian right.

But Dowe's grief at this moment has nothing to do with her current position. As the dean of the public-health program at the University of Oklahoma once told her, to be in public health is to be surrounded by controversy. Nor are her tears for the victims in Oklahoma City. The terror of that day will remain with her forever, but she has moved on.

The tears are for the man she will never leave behind, the man no one could save. The man who told her she was meant for something beyond motherhood and an Oklahoma farmhouse.


She was born at the tiny hospital in Mooreland, Oklahoma, and christened Lititia Gaden, but no one could pronounce her first name correctly, so she became just plain Tisha. Her family lived on a farm in Seiling, a small community surrounded by wheatfields and cattle ranches in northwest Oklahoma, and a thirty-minute drive from Mooreland.

Tisha was the middle child, sandwiched between an older brother and younger sister. When she was about six, the family moved to Lamesa, Texas, thirty miles south of Lubbock, where a farm terracer that her father had invented was manufactured. But following her sixth-grade year, the family moved back to Seiling, where her father grew wheat and raised cattle like everyone else.

Julian Gaden was a big teddy bear of a man. Tisha's earliest recollections of him involved riding on his back as he told her stories, some of them about his time as a navigator in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He never talked about the horrors of what he'd seen at Guadalcanal and Okinawa. His stories were always about the great guys he'd met or something funny that happened, like the night a Japanese soldier stumbled into his foxhole. The two men looked at each other in terror, trying to decide what to do, then scrambled out of opposite sides of the foxhole and ran like hell.

Tisha had heard some of the stories so many times that, perched on his back, she'd giggle before the punchline. He'd laugh and ask her how she knew what he was going to say. She'd answer in a soft, west Oklahoma accent, "'Cause I was right behind ya, Daddy, I was right behind ya."

He was her hero -- and a hero to many others, as well. The sort of guy who couldn't pass a wreck without stopping to help. Neighbors for miles around relied on him in an emergency. If a farmer got sick, Julian Gaden was the one who organized the effort to make sure fields were tended and animals cared for. His daughter would always remember the anxious faces at the door or voices on the telephone asking for his help after an accident -- not because of any specialized training, but because he just seemed to be the one who would know what to do.

If he had a weakness, it was his cigarettes. Like thousands of other servicemen, he'd started smoking during the war. The cigarettes came with his food rations -- donated to the cause by tobacco companies -- and helped relieve boredom and tension.

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