More than a year after he returned to West Virginia after three decades in health care at Ohio State University, Dr. Clay Marsh isn’t feeling overwhelmed or pessimistic about putting his home state on the path to better health.
It’s a big challenge, the Charleston native admits, but he gets up each morning feeling energized about the changes underway.
“I feel incredibly motivated to try to help,” explained Marsh, whose family includes his wife Gail Marsh and the couple’s three children: Rachel, 22; Cameron, 20; and Matthew, 16.
“From drug addiction to obesity to caring for the elderly — West Virginia has some really big problems, but the idea that we can use big ideas to create solutions and to start to see ourselves as West Virginians in a new way — that’s enormously exciting. That’s a pretty big reason to get up and at it every morning.”
February will mark a year since Marsh — the son of longtime former Charleston Gazetteeditor Don Marsh — returned to Morgantown, where he is West Virginia University’s vice president and executive dean for Health Sciences.
At the WVU Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center, he oversees five schools — dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and public health — along with allied health programs and clinical operations around the state. Some 3,300 undergraduate and graduate students study on the center’s three campuses in Morgantown, Charleston and Martinsburg, according to the university.
Before Marsh, no one who had led the Health Sciences Center had graduated from WVU’s medical school. Marsh, who earned his biology degree in 1981 and his medical degree in 1985, spent most of his years at WVU during E. Gordon Gee’s first tenure as president.
The two men’s paths crossed again when Gee’s first stint as president of Ohio State University began in 1990.
Gee, who became WVU’s president for the second time in 2014, got in touch with Marsh to ask if he’d return to West Virginia. At the time, Marsh was serving as executive director of the IDEA (Innovation, Design and Applications) Studio for Healthcare and Design at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.
He also was the chief innovation officer at Ohio State’s medical center and a professor of internal medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine.
During his years in Columbus, Marsh worked as clinical instructor and as an assistant, associate and full professor as well as a director, chairman and other senior-level roles. At the IDEA Studio, his focus centered on innovations to make top-quality care more affordable.
“When we talked about me coming to Morgantown, I remember Gordon Gee’s comment was, ‘Don’t do it for me. Do it for the state of West Virginia.’ And ultimately that’s why I did come back — to make a difference for our state.”
Gee has called his drive to recruit native West Virginians and university grads to WVU the “Return Home Project.” Besides Marsh, he’s hired Parkersburg native Shane Lyons as WVU’s athletic director and William Schafer, who grew up in Harrison County, as the school’s vice president of student life.
Gee noted that Marsh “has been preparing to be West Virginia’s doctor from the day he was born.
“All of his experience, as well as his upbringing in the household of one of the state’s best-known journalists, has given him the insight and the knowledge to address the serious medical needs of the state. He understands the issues, and the culture, as well as anyone could. When I was fortunate to return to West Virginia, and from what I knew of Clay from our time together in the past, I knew he would jump at the chance to come home and work for the betterment of all.”
Marsh, whose training at WVU came under then-Health Sciences leader Dr. Robert D’Alessandri, said he always thinks of Mountaineers as pioneers, blazing the trail for others.
West Virginia’s problems with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other diseases are enormous, Marsh notes, but the state is struggling with many of the same issues as the rest of the nation. If West Virginia can become a healthier state, then the turnaround is possible in every pocket of the nation, he said.
“We can make the state a beacon,” he said.
In September, Marsh joined Harrison County leaders — public officials, health professionals, business and community leaders and citizens along with leaders from Marshall University and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in Lewisburg — to unveil “Last to First Together.”
The grassroots community initiative is the first of what Marsh hopes will become a statewide effort to reverse residents’ poor health and move West Virginia from the bottom of national health rankings into a position as the healthiest state in the country.
The effort takes aim at half a dozen areas of health and well-being: healthy eating; increased physical activity; preventable injuries; and reducing the use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs.
“The health of each community in West Virginia is crucial to our future as a state,” Marsh said during the kickoff. “Health, education and economic development are all tied together — by addressing all three, we will become a model for other states.”
This is no top-down strategy to be handed down from Morgantown, Marsh said. “What people do in Harrison County — from the problems they focus on to the solutions they identify — is going to be very different from what grassroots leaders may come up with in Williamson or other parts of West Virginia. It’s all about what each community needs.”
But central to putting West Virginia on the right path, Marsh said, is WVU’s willingness to work alongside Marshall, the School of Osteopathic Medicine and other major health care players. “Instead of these institutions seeing one another as competitors, we need to become collaborators,” he said. “Instead of ‘WVU versus everyone else,’ I truly see what we need as one West Virginia. My purpose in coming back is to tangibly improve the health of our citizens and elevate their lives. That’s going to take all of us working together.”
Technology allows West Virginia to approach health care delivery in a new way, Marsh said. He envisions a continued emphasis on “telehealth” strategies that allow providers to treat patients remotely. If a patient living in Beckley is suffering from a condition and the top doc in that field practices in Martinsburg, then a telehealth approach allows medical experts to “reach people where they are,” he said.
Finding ways for all the state’s medical minds to work together on the big problems facing West Virginians is a game changer, Marsh said.
In many ways, Marsh said, his work today continues the mission he saw his father pursue throughout his life.
Don Marsh spent decades as editor and columnist at the Charleston Gazette, the newspaper that championed mine safety and other causes while fighting against poverty, political corruption and other ills as part of its commitment to “sustained outrage.”
Born in a coal camp in Logan County, Don Marsh joined the newspaper in 1952 and later became editor, winning the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for his weekly column before retiring in 1992. He died seven years later. His wife and Clay Marsh’s mother, Jerry Marsh, still resides in Charleston.
In the newsroom, he was known to tell reporters — “It does matter,” meaning political reforms, reform movements, the outcome of elections, court cases and the like. He often quoted the dying words of pioneer feminist Lucy Stone: “Make the world better.”
Says his son: “I do see my work now as carrying the torch from my father in a way. I believe we can make life better, and I see what I’m doing as fighting for the people who can’t fight so well for themselves.”