Georges, what made you beat the odds to become a successful doctor? What is your personal story and what drew you to medicine?
I was always a science nerd and wanted to always be a scientist. I actually never thought about being a physician or medicine as a career. I went to medical school to get the basic medical background to do molecular genetic research. While in college I was working in a biology laboratory as an assistant for one of my biology teachers. He was doing research on sickle cell anemia. I had a strong interest in sickle cell disease because I had a brother with the disease, and I carry the sickle cell trait. I found I did not know enough about the basic medical sciences to do some of the things I needed to do in the lab and was always having to go look things up. That motivated me to go to medical school because when I discovered the course curriculum for the first two years of medical school would give me the science background useful for the research I wanted to do. I went to the University of Illinois, School of Medicine in a special program. In this program we studied the basic sciences in an accelerated manor over one year instead of two. It was a disease-based curriculum that required we see patients in our first year. I learned a lot about myself during this year such as - I am a visual learner who does well in unconventional learning environments. During that first year, I fell in love with clinical medicine. In addition, I began hanging out at nights in the local emergency department with a physician that had dedicated his clinical practice to the new specialty of emergency medicine. I was hooked on both clinical medicine and emergency medicine.
I completed four years of high school ROTC (ARMY) and two years of college ROTC (NAVY) so I was inclined to military medicine. I applied for and received a military scholarship that paid my expenses for medical school. This was a great opportunity and I went into the Army after completing medical school to do my post graduate training. I choose internal medicine and studied at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Coincidentally, the Army was just starting its emergency medicine residencies at Brooke and I ended being mentored by the physician that founded the Army’s ER training programs. Really neat because I got to do some research with him as well. I also have the opportunity to do extra rotations during my time there in the emergency medicine department and bonded with their faculty and residents. When I finished my residency, I was assigned as faculty for one of the army’s residency programs as their staff internist. That experience led to several management, research, publishing, and teaching opportunities in academic emergency medicine.
My last duty assignment in the military was as Chief of Emergency Medicine at the Army’s flagship teaching hospital, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC. I served nine years overall in Army medicine and then entered the civilian world as the Chairman of Community Medicine and Ambulatory Care at the city hospital in Washington, DC (DC General Hospital). While there, I came to the attention of the city’s Mayor. In 1990, I became the chief health official in the city as DC Commissioner for Public Health. After almost two years as commissioner, I went back to a clinical practice in emergency medicine on and off from 1991 through1995, including a brief stent as a Deputy Fire Chief overseeing the Emergency Ambulance Bureau of the DC Fire & EMS Department. In the spring of 1995, I became the Deputy for Public Health Services for the State of Maryland’s health department. In 1999, I was promoted to become the state Secretary for Health. I resigned in December 2002 to become Executive Director at the American Public Health Association at the end of the tenure of my states' Governor, Parris Glendening.
I think the secret to a successful medical career is to first become a good physician. Become an expert in some aspect of the profession. For me, it was health system management with a particular interest in emergency and disaster medicine. I also believe that one should stay grounded by focusing on the needs of your patients. In the case of public health, the community is the patient. To accomplish this, we need good policy. I also believe good health policy is good medicine.
You lead the American Public Health Association-a crucial organization in “normal” times and the spoke of the wheel for marginalized populations now, hit so hard by COVID, loss of loved ones, job losses, education setbacks, and structural racism. What are your main goals leading APHA as one of the primary drivers to reset American during and after the pandemic?
I think APHA has a history of first being for the best interest in the health of the population. I have tried to keep the organization focused on its three overarching priorities: access to care, building public health infrastructure, and eliminating health disparities. The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the need to stay true to all three of these priorities in order to adequately address it. The goal is to have APHA stay focused on our work to have a health system with everyone in and no one out and move the health system to deliver equitable care of high quality to all. We are also striving to eliminate structural racism/discrimination in all aspects of our society and build a sustainable public health system to promote wellness, protect health and respond effectively to all health threats.
What do you most want other Americans to know about the path you have walked as a black male physician and prominent leader so that they can be more aware, learning from the hidden realities your journey in and of your job revealed?
I am usually the only person that looks like me and had my life experiences in the room. I had a middle-class life experience growing up and have had some of the same negative experiences as other African American men in our society. I try to stand above these experiences and chart my own path forward. Leadership is about leading, getting back up when you have been knocked down and staying focused on your goals. I try to always do what is right regardless of the consequences, and practice servant leadership. If there is a secret to success it is to first have confidence in your own abilities, build a team and trust them to get the mission done. Along the way you do have to learn to anticipate the detractors, absorb the blows, pivot to success, and give the credit to your team.
What do you most want to say to people of color right now, especially young black men who look up to you? What do you want to most say to all people?
There are many people that have surfaced to create a pathway for you to be successful. It is a relay race not a sprint. Opportunities are always presented as challenges for you to solve. You need to learn to see them for what they are, grab onto these opportunities when they present themselves and as they say ‘‘seize the day.” Success builds upon success. But when you fail, and you will do so occasionally, it is how well you assess what went wrong and keep going forward that counts.