By Barry Waldman
Dr. Hermes Florez came to MUSC as the new Associate Dean for Population Health in the College of Medicine and Chair of the Public Health Sciences department in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and found himself responsible for convincing a dubious public to walk the fine line between science, politics and human behavior.
The task was complicated by shifting waves of information about the virus, its virulence, its transmissibility, vulnerable populations, the efficacy of containment and mitigation strategies (physical distance, mask wearing and more). As the death toll rose, so did the level of misinformation and the enthusiasm with which it was being spread.
To convince the dubious and recalcitrant, Dr. Florez had the added handicap of rarely being able to meet with them in person.
But if you think Hermes Florez was daunted by the challenges, you have not talked to him.
Turning Challenges Into Opportunities
An M.D. and Ph.D., with training in geriatrics, and a practicing endocrinologist at the Ralph H. Johnson V.A. Medical Center, Dr. Florez joined MUSC as an Associate Dean last May from the University of Miami, where he served as Professor of Public Health Sciences and Medicine. Educated in his native Venezuela, he received his M.D. from the University of Zulia in Maracaibo, and his PhD and MPH from the University of Miami School of Medicine.
Dr. Florez views the overwhelming public health challenge as an opportunity to work with great people, enjoy the support of MUSC administration and effect positive change for the entire community. He is confident that slowly and surely efforts like his will convince more Americans to live healthy lifestyles.
He thinks about the veterans he served in Miami who might have multiple afflictions like obesity, PTSD and other stressors. He helped some of them acknowledge their problems and begin addressing them in baby steps, one-at-a-time. He watched them build on their small victories, gain confidence, regain control and achieve amazing results. It gives him faith that he can promote healthy aging in a community known as a bastion for strokes and diabetes.
“We are preparing the workforce beginning at the high school level to persuade them how to participate in the process of public health,” Dr. Florez said. “We can encourage changes in our own environment by supporting parents and grandparents in healthy lifestyle modifications and address environmental challenges to reduce our impact on the microbiome, which has consequences on all species, including humans.”
LGC Director Nancy Muller comments, “I am delighted to witness the passion, the seasoned talent, and depth of experience of Dr. Florez right here in our midst. There is no doubt he elevates the priority and attention that public health will be receiving in the years to come.” Dr. Muller serves on the Community Advisory Board of MUSC’s MPH Program and is a Visiting Associate Professor of Public Health at the College of Charleston.
Glass Half Full Kind of Guy
Why such optimism in the face of formidable barriers? “I like to see the glass as half full, not half empty,” he said.
Dr. Florez was intimately involved in the implementation of OneMUSC, the strategic roadmap that aims to break down silos, integrating research and clinical strengths to transform health care, optimizing the learning experience and educational value at the medical university, while encouraging more collaboration and innovation. The plan also emphasizes the value of diverse voices needed to reach the entire population.
Being an immigrant and arriving here from polyglot Miami has provided him with a different perspective and an understanding of the paramount importance of reducing disparities for diverse communities. His new role introduced him to the Gullah Geechee populations of the Sea Islands and their susceptibility to certain conditions, like diabetes. He immediately observed that there is an opportunity to apply lessons learned for the prevention of diabetes and other conditions in this unique population.
Falling in Love with Our Traffic and Cold Weather
Coming from the tropical heat of western Venezuela, where January highs average 91, and Miami, which adds humidity to the equation, Dr. Florez surprises colleagues and friends when he celebrates Charleston’s minimal-but-real change of seasons. Unlike most “comeyas,” he appreciates local weather for the slice of cold that winter brings.
And while you’re bemoaning the increasingly frustrating traffic tie-ups in the Lowcountry, he considers his benign commute to work a godsend. “I drove 25 miles back and forth to my office in South Florida,” he said. “Here I’m 5-6 miles away.”