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Jackson County medical director to retire

Dr. Shames has served Southern Oregon since the early 1970s

Jackson County’s medical director is preparing to hand over his public health reins to a successor, but he’ll leave behind lasting impacts that have shaped everything from the Rogue Valley’s affordable health care options to the region’s pandemic preparation.

After more than 20 years in the role — and a health care career lasting more than four decades — Dr. Jim Shames is preparing for his final six months at Jackson County Public Health.

Prior to becoming Jackson County Public Health medical director, Shames had treated people ranging from rural Josephine County residents to Jackson County Jail inmates, according to a news release from Jackson County Health and Human Services and Mail Tribune archives.

In the early 1970s, he helped form what’s now known as Siskiyou Community Health Center and played a leadership role in helping form La Clinica in the late 1980s.

Siskiyou Community Health started in 1973 as the Takilma People’s Clinic run out of an old farmhouse, according to a 1993 Mail Tribune story about the clinic’s 20th anniversary. The clinic in an unincorporated portion of Josephine County treated uninsured locals, some of whom had no way to pay medical bills except through bartering such things as vegetables or firewood.

He initially came from the Multnomah County Health Department to train local volunteers, but he stayed in Southern Oregon and went on to serve as the medical director of Siskiyou Community Health until 2003.

“When we started it, we originally saw ourselves as a clinic serving the needs of the counter-culture population,” Shames said in 1993. “But it quickly became clear there was a lot of need beyond Takimla. We were providing affordable health care in a fairly poor area.”

By the late ‘90s, Shames was balancing that role with duties that included health officer for Josephine County Public Health and working as the Jackson County Jail physician.

When Shames became Jackson County’s health officer in the early 2000s, he still held the title in Josephine County.

Shames' knowledge of treating people with drug and alcohol addiction made him a local leader on issues related to substance use disorder, including methamphetamine and opioid addiction.

Shames spearheaded a local project raising awareness for doctors overprescribing opiates as far back is 2007, according to Mail Tribune archives, when Jackson County methadone clinic patients who’d abused prescription opiates started surpassing traditional heroin users. The project involved videotaped interviews with local methadone patients whose path of addiction started in local doctors’ offices.

Shames stated in the release announcing his retirement that he’d initially planned to retire in 2020, but the timing wasn’t right with the COVID-19 pandemic developing.

“It was not an appropriate time to transition, so I remained dedicated to getting Jackson County to a place where they could navigate the ever-changing health care environment and have the time to find the right person in this position,” Shames stated.

Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan bestowed high praise on Shames.

“Dr. Shames has been a treasure to our county for many, many years, and I hold him in the highest regard.”

Shames’ successor, Dr. Leona O’Keefe, will become Jackson County health officer Jan. 3. He’ll stay on through June 2022.

O’Keefe has been deputy health officer with the county since July, and also serves as Josephine County’s interim deputy health officer.

O’Keefe called Shames an “effective, wise and caring pillar in the community.”

“I am honored to follow in his footsteps,” O’Keefe said.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.