Piedmont Profile: Cowan practices what he preaches

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Kathy Chaffin

If there’s a common theme to the life of Dr. Jim Cowan, it’s giving back ó to his community and his country.
His duties as the Allied Health Services director with the Rowan County Health Department and the Healthy Rowan! coordinator allow him to give back to the community by working to improve the overall health of county residents.
Cowan, 46, is passionate about his work and hopes to plant the idea of public health as a possible profession for the young people he works with on the Youth-in-Action Against Tobacco Council.
“Those youths who are a part of that important work are growing up understanding and appreciating the benefits they bring to Rowan County through public health,” he says, “which is good. This is a special kind of opportunity.”
The most important role of public health, Cowan says, is to prevent human suffering. “Why allow a population to suffer from diseases or injuries if you can prevent that from occurring in the first place?”
The prevention of disease is much less expensive than the treatment. That’s the goal of immunizations, he says, to prevent such diseases as measles, mumps, tetanus, whooping cough and influenza.
“I come back to the age-old adage, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’ ” he says. “That saying has been around for years, and it’s absolutely true.
“Or ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away,’ ” Cowan says, “and that is also true. Good nutrition is essential to good health.”
After nine years of active duty as a public health officer for the Air Force ó promoting and protecting the health of Airmen and Airwomen and their families in four states ó he continues to give back to his country by serving in the Air Force Reserves.
Cowan was sent to Balad Air Base in Iraq in May 2004, where he was assigned for five months as the public health officer for the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing and led public health programs protecting the health and safety of 2,400 Airmen and Airwomen.
From August through November 2005, he was assigned to Camp Eggers in Kabul, Afghanistan, to serve as the medical mentor to the Afghan National Army Office of the Surgeon General-Preventive Medicine Directorate.
Cowan says his paternal grandfather, Bernard Cowan, influenced his love of country. Though he had immigrated to the United States from Hungary in 1921, Cowan’s grandfather didn’t like to talk about his homeland.
” ‘That’s the old ways, I’m an American,’ ” Cowan says he would say if someone asked him about it . “He was just so happy to be in this country.”
Cowan, whose full name is James Bernard Cowan, is named after both his grandfathers. James was the name of his mother’s father.
After growing up in New Providence, N.J., Cowan earned his undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University in 1984. During the summer of his junior year, he completed platoon leadership class, a 10-week boot camp in Quantico, Va., to become an officer in the Marine Corps.
Upon graduation, he had to choose between a commission in the Marines and going to the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. “I decided to go to vet school,” he says.
It was in vet school that Cowan started dating Linda Childress, a student at the University of Tennessee. He met her through his best friend, who had married her sister.
During his education in veterinary medicine, Cowan completed clinical rotations in small and large animal veterinary services and public health. That was his first introduction to public health, and he talked to the associate dean about pursuing it as a career.
“He said, ‘You really need to make sure that you don’t want to practice small animal veterinary medicine,’ ” Cowan recalls.
He accepted a job at a veterinary hospital in Winston-Salem in 1987, and he and Linda got married. After a year in the small animal practice, Cowan contacted his associate dean with his decision to go into public health. He put him in touch with an Air Force recruiter, and Cowan ended up being commissioned as a captain.
He was stationed in San Antonio, Texas, and later transferred to Columbus, Miss., where his daughter, Anna, and son, Matthew, were born.
After that, Cowan was awarded an Air Force Institute of Technology scholarship to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Public Health, where he focused on health behavior and health education.
While in the program, he interviewed livestock extension agents across the state to try to better understand how injuries are caused by beef cattle among agricultural workers and how to best prevent those injuries.
After graduating with a masters of science degree, he was stationed at Grand Forks, N.D., where Cowan and his family spent two and a half years. “Or more importantly,” he says, “three winters.”
“The winters there are brutal,” he says, “and yet at the same time, the folks that live in North Dakota are incredibly stoic. To them, it’s no big deal. There are no snow days.”
Fortunately for the Cowans, the elementary school Anna attended was in their back yard, so he says they would watch out the back window to make sure she got there safely. “That snow would be well above her waist,” he says.
From there, the Cowans went to Wichita Falls, Texas, where their youngest son, Benjamin, was born. Ten months later, Cowan was granted a separation from active duty in the Air Force and transitioned into the Air Force Reserves.
“I wanted to continue to serve my country,” he says. “I enjoyed being on active duty, but my family was tired of moving about every two years or so. Outside of that, everything was exceptional.”
By this time, Cowan’s parents had moved to Winston-Salem, so he looked for a job in North Carolina and Tennessee, where his wife’s parents were still living in Knoxville. That’s when he saw the job posting for the director of the Allied Health Services for the Rowan County Health Department.
Cowan got the job and has been here for almost 12 years. His Air Force Reserves service satisfies what he describes as his “happy feet” by allowing him to travel, but without disrupting his family.
In addition to his long list of responsibilities as Allied Health Services director and Healthy Rowan! coordinator, which was added to his job in 2001, Cowan created the Smoke-Free Rowan Coalition in April 2006.
At that time, he says 24 percent of Rowan County’s restaurants were smoke-free. Since the Smoke-Free Rowan campaign was started to reduce the number of businesses, organizations and schools allowing tobacco products, the percentage of smoke-free restaurants has risen to 43 percent and close to 175 other businesses and organizations are smoke-free as well.
“But we’re not real pleased with that,” Cowan says. “There are folks who still don’t know how dangerous second-hand smoke is. We wish everybody would go smoke-free.
“We need to be protecting our families and our employees 100 percent.”
Cowan also serves on the Hispanic Coalition of Salisbury-Rowan, the Rowan Transit Services Advisory Board, the Rowan Senior Services Advisory Board and the N.C. Cooperative Extension Rowan Center Advisory Board.
He and his family live in Concord. Nineteen-year-old Anna is following in her father’s footsteps, pursuing a career in public health at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Cowan practices the healthy living that he is so passionate about by swimming five days a week at the Sports Center. Often, 13-year-old Benjamin swims with him.
Seventeen-year-old Matthew works out preparing for Tae kwon do competitions.
The Cowans attend Hickory Grove Baptist Church North Campus on the Cabarrus-Mecklenburg line.
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.