Saraland, Alabama is a long way from Chicago, both geographically and culturally. However, that didn't stop Chicago native Howard Rubenstein, MD from diving right into civic activity when he moved to Saraland upon completing his residency. Since starting his family practice in 1985, Rubenstein has been involved in all aspects of community service, from working with volunteer groups and the Chamber of Commerce to politics where he served on the city council before he was elected mayor.
"Part of the joy of living a small community is having patients ask me about city council business or folks approaching me after a council meeting and asking for medical advice," Rubenstein said. "That's just how things work."
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 then-young physician.
"During my residency, he hammered into us the idea that it's not enough to hang out a shingle and practice medicine. You should get involved in your community and give back. It's a great philosophy that I took to heart," Rubenstein said.
Rubenstein worked with as many civic groups as he could until 1996 when a seat opened on the city council. "I told my wife I'd like to run for it, and she said I was crazy," he said. "But after doing everything else, I realized I wanted a little more input on how things were done in the community. I was shocked to win. I think I won by just 72 votes."
According to Rubenstein, there is a big difference between practicing medicine and public service. "As a physician, you want to make every patient as happy as possible, he said. "You can't always do that as an elected official. With every decision, you're going to make someone happy and someone unhappy."
Rubenstein is currently serving his second full term as mayor. "I've really enjoyed this opportunity to serve," he said. "We've done a lot of great things in our community over the last 20 years," he said. "We have our own city school system, which we started about 10 years ago; a brand new high school and elementary school, and we just built an early education center. There's a lot of growth in the area now. I think my favorite part of this job is the enjoyment you get when a project that you've thought about and worked on is actually done. There's such a sense of accomplishment in seeing a project from conception to completion."
Between the two jobs, Rubenstein has many long days. 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 and watching television," he said. "I love seeing my patients. And with the civic work, I'm helping my community grow. To me, every physician should be able to make time to do something they enjoy to prevent burnout. Being a physician is a challenging career that can take a toll, so this work with the city helps break up my day."
And yet, with all this activity, he has somehow found time for a hobby. For the past 12 years, Rubenstein and his family have visited the Cayman Islands for scuba diving.
In the end, Rubenstein's love affair with his community is a two-way street. After the sudden passing of his son, Rubenstein said the outpouring of compassion from the community was breathtaking.
"My wonderful wife Tammy and I have been married for 34 years," he said. "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 sympathetic. Without their support, I don't think we would have made it through."