By MARK PORTER
for Montclair Local

Wrapping up 36 years of public service to the township, Montclair health officer Susan B. Portuese last week continued handling never-ceasing tasks that go with overseeing a vital department.

Her colleagues, acting health officer Keith Costello and director of nursing Peggy Brodowski, noted that Portuese was toiling in her office during her final workday afternoon.

“She’s still answering emails and questions, right to the end,” Costello said.

“It’s been a busy week,” Portuese acknowledged to Montclair Local.

For the past 13 years, Portuese has led the Montclair Health and Human Services Department, including the harrowing past year and a half, when the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world, sickening or killing millions of people, including 73 in town.

Coping with the pandemic

Since spring 2020, Portuese and her colleagues have dealt nonstop with containing the virus in Montclair and the three towns with which Montclair has shared-service health operations: Cedar Grove, Nutley and Verona.

“It was definitely a team effort on the part of our nursing division and environmental division to ensure we were all in support of one another in our response,” Portuese said. “We organized testing, engaged in case investigation and contact tracing, educated residents, community leaders and school officials, and, finally, had a major role in the vaccination effort.”

“She stepped up in coordinating testing and vaccinations for the towns,” Brodowski said of Portuese. “She really fought to get inventory.”

“We were the first to get the credentials, and she secured grants to get laboratory-grade refrigerators” for the vaccines, Costello said. “It’s all about partnerships.”

“With case numbers dwindling and a majority of the population vaccinated,” Portuese said, “I feel like we are in a good place, where we know how to control the spread of this disease and will take actions needed if there is a resurgence.”

As did their predecessors during previous health crises, Health Department employees dedicated themselves to assisting residents despite the risks they confronted. “It was an extremely stressful and intense time,” Portuese said in an email. “We were on 24/7 without any time off for the better part of the year, and spent many sleepless nights.

“The Health Department staff had to deal with the same concerns and fears as the general public: How do we keep ourselves and our families safe while responding to a global pandemic where we were responsible for protecting the health of our communities?”

“We’ve benefited by Sue’s leadership,” Brodowski said. “She took the helm of our ship and navigated us through uncharted waters, because, honestly, it was all new to us.”

COVID-19 is the most lethal of the series of disease outbreaks the Montclair Health Department has dealt with during Portuese’s leadership. Brodowski and Costello cited the H1N1 influenza virus that swept the globe in 2009, the mosquito-borne Zika virus in 2017 and the Ebola virus that broke out in 2015 and again in 2021. 

Health Department activities

Portuese began her career in the Montclair Health and Human Services Department in April 1985. She’s covered numerous aspects of public health, ranging from inspecting the township’s three public swimming pools and developing a food-code checklist to investigating lead contamination and establishing Essex County’s first household hazardous waste day, held in Montclair.

“I became involved with organizing the township’s first hazardous waste disposal day in coordination with the Montclair Department of Public Works,” Portuese said. “It is important to separate out hazardous materials from the regular waste stream, as it can often be neutralized or safely disposed of, to protect the environment.”

Last month marked the retirement of Montclair sustainability officer Gray Russell, who has been key in overseeing the township’s recycling program and reducing hazardous waste. Russell expressed his appreciation for Portuese’s leadership:  “She took interest in my sustainability programs and encouraged our work, but also gave me space to initiate projects myself. Sue was fair, level-headed and a really nice person. I will miss working for her.”

In July 2008, Portuese became the township’s health officer and the director of the Health and Human Services Department. The wide-ranging department includes public health nursing, environmental health, social services, Section 8 housing assistance, animal control and the Montclair Animal Shelter. She’s overseen endeavors enabling senior citizens to “age in place” in Montclair.

In 2018, 2019 and 2020, the NJ Healthcare Quality Institute named Montclair as the Mayors Wellness Campaign’s “Healthy Town,” acknowledging the township’s success “to promote healthy behaviors and improve the health and wellness of the community overall,” Portuese explained.

“Several years ago, I was tasked with rebuilding our Division of Senior Services. After attending a community meeting organized by Partners for Health, it was apparent that many of the needs of Montclair’s seniors were not being met.” 

The nonprofit Partners provided a grant “to renovate and upgrade the Edgemont Park House to be used as a site where we could offer activities, education and a place for socialization for our older residents,” she said.

Praising current Division of Senior Services Director Margaret Church and former Director Katie York for their leadership, Portuese said, “We have proven that a senior center is a vital need in town – and a larger, more comprehensive center is something that both residents and township officials recognize is needed.”

Calling Montclair’s mobile farm stand “one of the most fun and innovative projects I’ve worked on,” Portuese said that, through the Montclair Community Farms Coalition, she secured a municipal pickup truck, on which the Professional Woodworkers Guild of Upper New Jersey constructed the stand. The vehicle brings organic produce grown at the Montclair Community Farms sites “ directly into the community ... and sold at low cost to seniors and modest income people.”

Department a ‘work family’

 “Our department is a true ‘work family.’ We have shared so many laughs and tears over the years and have supported one another through life’s experiences,” Portuese said. “I’ve earned myself the nickname of ‘Ziggy,’ though, because, funnily, whatever can go wrong usually does, and nothing ever goes easy.

“A funny story that Keith Costello shared is how, on his first day at work, I was giving him a tour of the office. I whipped open the accordion doors to the Women’s Health Clinic room to show him the space, not knowing that there was an older woman in the room, waiting in her underwear for her exam. I never acted so quickly to close that door back up while apologizing profusely to all involved.

“It has been an honor and privilege to have served the residents of Montclair and our contracting towns for the majority of my career. I am truly grateful for the relationships that have been built, both with municipal colleagues and my colleagues in the health profession. I will always treasure the friends I have made during my career here. I’m going out with such a good feeling. It’s so emotional I’m overwhelmed.”

“We would do anything for Sue,” Brodowski said. “She’s been there for us.”

“I’m hoping to follow her footsteps,” Costello said, “and provide the same leadership she provided to us.”

Portuese’s plans post-retirement? “I need a good few weeks to just decompress,” she said. “After that, I plan on spending more time with my family, friends and dog, pursue my many hobbies — painting, quilting, baking/cooking, reading and exercise — and hopefully do a bit of traveling.”