2020 Person of the Year: Martha Buchanan (of course)

Betty BeanKnox Scene

She’s got the hardest and most thankless job in Knox County. For the better part of a year now, she and her staff have worked ceaselessly against twin pandemics of COVID-19 and willful ignorance. (The grim report for Dec. 9, 2020.) Despite their best efforts, both the virus and the disinformation are surging now, so Dr. Martha Buchanan doesn’t have time for folderol like being interviewed because she is my 2020 Person of the Year.


But I can write this column (which will no doubt embarrass her) without imposing on her time, with a little help from her friends who describe her as smart and funny and humble, a lover of dogs and a good laugh. Genuine is a word that comes up frequently.

Martha Buchanan

“She just wants to do the right thing,” said more than one friend of Buchanan. Says someone who had COVID-19 in early November and went to the health department to be tested: “There was a separate entrance on the side. I bet I had my mask off less than 30 seconds. I didn’t stop walking except to be swabbed. It was amazing.”

Buchanan’s friends see her very differently than the anti-mask, anti-mandate crowd who are skeptical of the seriousness of the warnings and have been publicly reminding her (and other members of the Board of Health) that they are unelected, uncaring destroyers of small businesses. Who knew that telling people to wash their hands, practice physical distancing, wear cloth face coverings, sanitize surfaces and stay home if they’re sick would be seen as an attack on personal freedom?

Early in her career, Buchanan was a family practice specialist who spent her time telling patients to lose weight, exercise more and eat less and smarter. Now her patients are nearly a half million Knox countians and things have gotten increasingly unruly. She went to work for Knox County as assistant public health officer in 2004, was promoted to public health officer in 2006 and was named director in 2010. She is a graduate of Powell High School, Carson-Newman and the James H. Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University, a board-certified member of the American Academy of Family Practice, the Tennessee Academy of Family Practice and an ex officio member of the Knox County Board of Health, which is responsible for making decisions regarding the county’s response to COVID 19.

Earlier in the pandemic, the decision-making job was Buchanan’s alone, and it wore on her, as demonstrated by this March 27 video when discussing the rising suicide rate brought her to tears.

“We will get through this crisis together if we allow ourselves to reach out when we need help. If we check on each other regularly and allow ourselves to be human and kind and caring. … We struggle with these decisions, too. And it’s challenging for us, too.”

Buchanan and her staff have had extra security and police surveillance as they do their jobs, and they are also criticized by those who say they are doing too little to enforce masking and crowd size orders. But they square their shoulders and keep on keeping on.

We are fortunate they put up with us.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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