Columbus public health district director Zsolt Koppanyi to retire Sept. 1

Zsolt Koppanyi, who with his family fled Hungary to escape Russian occupation in 1945, became a doctor in Argentina, emigrated to the United States in 1960 and in 1998 became health director for Georgia's West Central Health District, will retire Sept. 1.

Koppanyi announced his impending retirement in a letter to Columbus Council. He gave his own declining health as the reason.

"I thought a great deal about this decision but my ongoing illness convinced me that it is time to think about my own health and welfare," he wrote councilors. "I don't believe that I can fulfill all my obligations, in spite of all your wonderful support."

The journey that eventually brought him to Columbus was long and arduous. In 1998, then 62, Koppanyi told Ledger-Enquirer reporter Larry Gierer that he was 10 years old when a warplane strafed the bus in which he, his parents and sister were fleeing Hungary. They had to abandon the bus and dive into a ditch filled with ice-cold water.

Koppanyi was 10 years old then. He would spend the next five years in an Austrian refugee camp, where 18 people occupied a single room, sleeping in bunkbeds stacked three high.

It was in the camp that Koppanyi was initiated into the field of public health: His mother had taught him English, so he served as an interpreter for U.S. soldiers delousing the refugees.

Because of a quota system that caused a 12-year wait for a visa, the family could not immediately emigrate to the United States, so instead they went to Argentina. There Koppanyi decided on a career in medicine, partly because his father, an authority on Hungarian law, found his knowledge and skills of little use there.

"I knew I could use medical skills anywhere," Koppanyi said.

He worked at a children's hospital after graduating from the Buenos Aires medical school, and after moving to the United States held several prominent positions: He became director of pediatric ambulatory services for Baltimore city hospitals, taught at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, and served 12 years as Idaho's director of maternal and child health.

He saw his job as health director of the 16-county public health district in Georgia as a challenge and an opportunity. He always loved children, he said, and six of the state's 10 poorest counties were in his district.

"We have the state's highest rate of infant mortality and also teen pregnancy," he said. He saw educating new and prospective parents as the key to a brighter future, teaching people to develop healthy habits before having children, to be prepared for the stresses of caring for infants and toddlers, and to immunize their children against the diseases that killed so many in the past.

"Mine was the first generation not to expect a child to die," Koppanyi said back in 1998. "With the vaccines that we have, few families must suffer that fate. We must educate."