SARALAND – A native of Chicago, Howard Rubenstein moved to Saraland in 1985 after he completed his residency. He dabbled in civic organizations at first before diving in head first as he learned just how much he enjoyed his community and the people in it. A thriving family practice, to the Lion’s Club, to the Chamber of Commerce, to team doctor, to the city council, and even the creation of a Boy Scout Explorer Post, Dr. Rubenstein’s mark on the community that he loves continues today as mayor. And yet…he’s still “the new guy.”
“Even though I’ve been in Saraland since 1985, I’m still the new guy. It’s part of the joy of a small community having patients ask about city council business or folks come up to me after a city council meeting and ask for medical advice. That’s just how things work. I still get phone calls from constituents who say, ‘Well, Mayor, I know you’ve lived here a few years but I’ve been a resident since 1946!’”
After all these years living in the Deep South, when Dr. Rubenstein speaks, you won’t catch him saying, “Y’all.”
“I’m working on it. Give me a few more years. I love living in Alabama. This state has some of the best people in it, but I’m still one of the new guys, I guess. I’ll take that,” he laughed.
He credits his love of public service to his residency director, who also served as mayor of his hometown. It was a philosophy of civic duty that resonated with the young physician.
“For three years during my residency, he hammered into us that it’s not enough to basically hang out a shingle and practice medicine. You have to get involved in your community. You have to become part of your community. You have to give back to your community. It’s a great philosophy I took to heart,” Dr. Rubenstein explained.
Once Dr. Rubenstein finished his residency and moved to Saraland, that philosophy followed him. He set up his practice…and then set out to get more involved in his community. Healing his patients was one thing, but doing as much as he could to help heal his community was one step further. More work needed to be done in this suburb of Mobile. He got involved with as many civic groups as he could until 1996 when a seat opened on the city council. That spark lit a new fire for Dr. Rubenstein.
“I told my wife I’d like to run for that, and she told me I was crazy,” he laughed. “But, after doing everything else I realized I really did want a little more input on how things were being done in the community. “I expected to lose that election, I was just so shocked! I think I won by just 72 votes. It was totally different than I thought it was going to be.”
A lot of parallels have been drawn between politics and medicine – about healing patients and healing communities. But, according to Dr. Rubenstein, nothing can be farther apart than the two.
“The difference between public service and being a physician is that as a physician you want to make every patient as happy as you possibly can make them. That’s your goal – to do the absolute best that you can for your patient. You can’t always do that as an elected official. With every decision you make as an elected official, you’re going to make someone happy and someone unhappy. So, it’s a different paradigm that you’re working in. You just can’t make everyone happy.”
Dr. Rubenstein is currently serving his second full term as mayor, and with 21 years in politics, he’s found a balance: He enjoys serving his community as a physician in a thriving practice and as a public servant.
“I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity to serve. We’ve done a lot of great things in our community of the last 20 years. Saraland has come a very long way in that time. We have our own city school system, which we started about 10 years ago…a brand new high school and elementary school, just built an early education center. There’s a lot of growth and a lot of new businesses and subdivisions coming into the area now. I think the favorite part is the enjoyment when a project that you’ve thought about and worked on is actually done. To go from ‘maybe we can do this’ to ‘now it’s done’…There’s such a sense of accomplishment in seeing a project from conception to completion.”
That doesn’t mean his days are short. They’re long and challenging. He begins each day in his practice around 7:30 a.m. seeing patients and ends sometimes as late as 9 p.m. working on city council business.
“I don’t enjoy sitting at home at night and watching television. That’s not my idea of fun, and I don’t think I’m missing anything anyway. I love seeing my patients and working with them…for the past four generations now. That’s the joy of family medicine!” he laughed. “And with the civic work, I’m helping my community grow. Here’s the thing – To me, every physician should be able to make time to do something they enjoy to prevent burnout. I’ve seen a lot of physician burnout cases, and it’s important to be able to do something different and exciting and fun! Being a physician is a challenging career that can take a toll with all the regulations and rules and stress, so even this work with the city helps break up my day.”
And, he has a hobby. As an avid scuba enthusiast, Dr. Rubenstein and his family have for the last 12 years visited their favorite spot in the Cayman Islands for some of the most spectacular diving in the Caribbean Sea.
As much as he loves his home in Saraland, it’s obvious the residents love and appreciate him and his family as well. In 2012 after the sudden passing of his son, Dr. Rubenstein said the outpouring of support and compassion was breathtaking.
“I have an amazingly supportive wife, Tammy, without whose support I couldn’t do what I do. We’ve been married for 34 years. In 2012, our 28-year-old son went to bed one night and didn’t wake up the next morning. We discovered he had a rare congenital heart defect. Our community was extremely supportive. Without their support, I don’t think we would have made it through,” he said.