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One-on-One with Leigh Caswell

Leigh Caswell

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Leigh Caswell, who does a lot of scary things, says one of the most “horrifying” involved crossing a sharp, skinny ridge to reach a climbing route in the French Alps.

“It’s a pretty easy mountaineering route, but to get to it, you have to walk out of this ice cave and then there’s this really narrow pillar, and on one side it drops down to Chamonix (France) and the other side it drops down to a glacier below you,” Caswell says.

She was with her husband and a friend, and she knew exactly what she would have to do in an emergency.

“Essentially, we’re roped together, three of us, and you walk down this thing, and if one person falls off on one side, your job is to jump off the other side so you can counter-balance each other,” Caswell says.

Was it worth this kind of sheer terror?

“Yeah,” she says. “It was beautiful. And I know jumping off the other side works. It would have been horrifying, but it works.”

Caswell, vice-president for community health for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, knows all about danger in the mountains. She has spent more than two decades on volunteer search and rescue teams, and was the first female board president of Albuquerque Mountain Rescue.

She focuses on safety when she’s in the outdoors, while her professional life is all about public health, helping people thrive and making sure they have access to nutritious food and healthy lifestyles.

Caswell, 40, helped develop Presbyterian’s Mobile Farmers’ Market and the Food Farmacy, which offers produce from an on-site garden and other goods to patients who have limited access to healthy food. The new Presbyterian Community Health Resource Center, which opened in June at the Kaseman campus, also includes a demonstration kitchen and community space for exercise classes and other events. Presbyterian just opened a similar center in southwest Albuquerque.

The work reflects Caswell’s lifelong desire for social justice and the care of others, which she says she learned growing up in the mountains west of Fort Collins, Colo.

“We were just a really small community who took care of each other, yet we were really independent,” Caswell says. “My parents told me I always wanted to stand up for the little guy, and I cared a lot about justice, even at that age.”

What was your childhood like?

“My closest friend was up the hill in the woods, and so I spent a lot of time with my dog … just playing in the woods and exploring. My dog (a collie) walked to the school bus with me in the morning and met me at the school bus in the afternoon. My dad was my teacher … at the school, and my mom was a school teacher, too. There were 50 kids in the whole school, and there were times that I was the only girl in the ninth grade. And so I think I was pretty independent and kind of had to learn to fend for myself from the tough mountain boys. I became a fast runner – that was my strategy, to be more agile. But also, I lived next to people who didn’t have electricity and didn’t have running water, so I (was) seeing a lot of the poverty that was in the mountains and really acknowledging how lucky I was to have this beautiful house my dad built.”

How did your childhood experiences shape who you are now?

“I think health is all about social justice. It’s directly applied to (my) view of how we provide care to people, and how we should be reaching out and intervening and working with communities to understand what they need. Understanding that health is not just about health care.”

How do you spend your free time?

“Mostly, I do a lot of trail running and hiking and a lot of yoga at home. YouTube yoga is the best thing, I’ve decided. Because I can drink my coffee while I do my yoga in the morning. My dogs take a lot of time. They’re special dogs that need a lot of exercise. I have a Vizsla (a (Hungarian hound) and a black and tan coonhound. Vizslas … they’re goofy. They want to sit on your lap when you’re not running.”

What are your favorite places?

“The Moab area, the red rock cliffs there. My husband loves to mountain bike, so we do mountain biking. I just crash a lot because I go too fast. I don’t have a lot of sense. The Swiss Alps and the French Alps.”

What’s on your bucket list?

“I want to spend more time in Switzerland. Maybe six years or so ago, we started paragliding, but I haven’t flown much in the past two or three years. I think just the age of my son. So I have a lot of dreams around doing a lot more flying in the Alps. And going back to Alaska. I just want to spend a lot of timing climbing up mountains and being outside. Sometimes I’m amazed that I’m able to fly (and) climb because I feel like I’m afraid. I’m not afraid of heights, but I definitely am anxious about it. I just care a lot about safety. I guess I’ve done enough rescues. I don’t think that these mountains are worth dying over. I know for me that they’re not.”

So what’s the draw of climbing?

“It’s about life, about my career, everything. It’s about pushing through things I’m afraid of, because that’s how we do meaningful things, I think. And so it’s practicing that.”

Do you feel you’ve had any particular challenges because you’re a woman?

“Not here (at Presbyterian), and since I’m kind of in the public health end of it, we’re all women. I’m incredibly impressed and proud of this organization and the way that it operates and the way that I’ve felt respected here. In search and rescue, it’s different. It’s been part of why I’ve stepped back from it, partially because work is more intense. I kind of do the minimum right now. Because you’re dealing with police, fire, military types … it’s very different. That’s where I’ve done reflection on how I grew up, being around a lot of boys and how I’ve chosen to deal with that. That I have found to be hard because I believe in transparency and authenticity, and I think emotion is fine. I’m driven by values, and it’s not always really well-accepted in places like that. I still care about it, and I’m a lifer, I think.”

Is there a particular search and rescue effort that stands out for you?

“Yes, definitely. One of our team members was killed climbing in the Sandias, and his wife was also on the team and he was a good friend. That was a hugely impactful thing for me because not only was I feeling like I needed to be there for his wife, who was a friend and a team member, but I also needed to make sure the team who helped to recover him was supported. And that was something… I never thought I’d have to do and here we are volunteers, right? And that’s when it becomes really important to have a team and to know who has what strengths and to ask for help. Helping us to move through that was really hard.”

What are your pet peeves?

“The bootstrap mentality. This idea that we blame people who have the least amount of power for where they are, and we think they just needed to work harder, right? That to me is the most insane idea and not based in the reality of our history of oppression in this world and in this country. If we could be willing to think a little more deeply about systems that are set up that perpetuate oppression and that really don’t allow people to thrive… There are things much more powerful than individuals that are creating that.”