Joint town health director takes the pulse of her 37-year career

Apr 27, 2020

Marion-Rochester Regional Health District Health Director Karen Walega has gotten death threats from a Rochester resident over landfill regulations, but it was the coronavirus pandemic that made her retire from a job that she loves.

After 31 and a half years serving both towns, she is moving to be the health director for Rochester, as the health district splits up. Marion posted her position last week. 

Though the decision was tough, Walega said it was a privilege to be health director of both towns for over 30 years.

“You never know what challenges you will face each day,” Walega said

One tough case involved a Rochester resident with an landfill full of fish scraps he carted away from local harbors.

After Walega came to his home with environmental police, the resident tried to sue the town multiple times. When that did not work, he began to stalk Walega and send her death threats.The harassment was so bad that she had to file a restraining order against the resident every year until he passed away.

She has navigated tough situations like this, but the virus is overwhelming at this point in her career. 

Turning on the lights at 1 a.m. to write down ideas of how to tackle the virus became a regular occurrence, and it “led me to come to the realization that I just can’t do it anymore,” Walega said. 

Marion recently decided that it didn’t want to be in the joint district any longer. Walega said she knew this decision was coming, and it pushed her to retire. 

Instead of working 37 and a half hours a week between two towns, she will be part-time in Rochester.

Although the town’s population is larger than Marion, the new job is a position she has already worked in and half of her job for the district, so she is less worried about stressors like dealing with the virus.

Walega first became interested in investigating health issues at a young age because she lived on the Acushnet River, which was filled with PCBs from a nearby saw mill. 

After college, a stint at animal hospitals, graduate school and different public health positions throughout the South Coast, Walega ended up back in her hometown as the health director for the then Acushnet-Marion-Rochester Regional Health District.

When Acushnet decided to break away, she made the decision to continue with Marion and Rochester as their health director.

Her semi-retirement leaves Walega the time to pursue things she loves, like gardening, nature photography and golf, which she hasn’t played in the last two to three years.

Although her full-time work is coming to a close, Walega said that “I’ve been very fortunate along my path” and is blessed to have worked with such amazing people.