Susan Wheelan, director of El Paso County Public Health, has been in crisis mode since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States.
But she hasn’t faced it alone. Wheelan and her team have worked together finding innovative solutions while acting as the lead agency on the county’s COVID-19 response and recovery.
“Nothing happens with one single individual,” she said. “Progress happens when you collaborate, and then you have collective action. And that’s what’s happening in El Paso County and my team and myself.”
The first in her family to graduate college, Wheelan was appointed director in December 2018. She previously served as interim director for just over a year and was the agency’s deputy director for the three years prior to that.
An Army brat, Wheelan mostly grew up in the Springs but also spent stints in Guam and Germany — and says that’s been important to her success.
“Getting to live in different places as a child really helps with being collaborative and understanding how to work with all types of people and different professional capacities, which is important in my role,” she said.
Wheelan earned her bachelor’s degree in communication from UCCS, and a master’s in business administration from Colorado Technical University.
She serves on several boards including Kidpower, and the Colorado Springs chapter of the National Association of Mental Illness. She is also a member of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials Legislative Committee, the Governor’s Retail Marijuana Education Oversight Committee and the Colorado Tobacco Review Committee.
When people are involved and active in local organizations, she said, it makes that community a great place to live.
“I also think it’s important for our resiliency,” Wheelan said. “I think that it not only benefits the community but it’s a great feeling to work with others. I serve on a number of different boards, not [because] it’s an expectation of the job, but it’s because I believe in so many different efforts … and I just think it’s really healthy to get involved in the community.”
Wheelan has had several women mentors in her life.
“My mom is the strongest woman I know — she’s pretty amazing,” she said. “And I am very fortunate to have some really close friendships with many successful women in leadership. And I think of leadership not as needing to be the director or the CEO. I think it’s a way in which we function, not a title. I also have two daughters that are inspiring, and [so is] the leadership that they demonstrate.”
Wheelan believes in recognizing women of influence so they can share their experiences and connect with each other.
“We need to lift other women up,” she said. “I do think that it’s my responsibility also to be a mentor and to help grow leaders and help build their confidence. And what I love to see is watching them soar.”
She said she’s humbled and honored by her Women of Influence honor.
“I’m also very grateful and appreciative not just for the honor, but for my public health chain, my county team, my Pikes Peak Regional Office of Emergency Management Team. We are so fortunate to have so many different collaborations and partnerships in this community,” she said.
“I want to emphasize that it’s teamwork, and it’s at all levels, all leaders, and working with people in the community that have made this recognition possible.”