John Agwunobi MD MBA MPH
Secretary of the Department of Health
My tenure as Secretary of Health was one marked by the Attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, the Anthrax attack in Boca Raton in October 2001, Bioterrorism response, West Nile Virus, Hurricanes, and so much more. But the one thing that held true across all these events and the many others that we had to deal with as a team, was the passion, skill, self-sacrifice and commitment of the Florida Public Health professional that I served alongside. In December 2002, while serving as the Secretary of the Florida Department of Health, I wrote an editorial that was published in the Tallahassee Democrat in early January 2003; it included the following excerpt...
If you were asked to nominate someone for "Floridian of the
Year," whom would you select? If I were ever asked to choose, it
would be a soldier of sorts, yet no less a warrior. Invisible to most, a
stranger to many, my choice battled valiantly all year long to promote
and protect the health and safety of everyone in Florida. My nominee
would be the great Florida public health professional.
The fine men and women who make up this dedicated corps of
public servants have long deserved but rarely received our collective
recognition for their hard work. Recent years have overflowed with
unprecedented public health challenges but through it all, Florida's
public health professionals stood tall. Public health responded to
many environmental health hazards this year. Whether fecal bacteria
in the sea, dioxin in fish or arsenic in wells, these professionals threw
themselves into the fray with an enthusiasm born of their desire to save
Today, Florida breathes easier in the knowledge that its public
health professionals displayed excellence and dedication in their
response to the very real threats posed by the SARS and influenza
outbreaks of 2003. The ubiquitous mosquito provided a number of
opportunities for public health to prove its mettle this year. At all
points on the Florida compass, our public health crew helped the state
navigate through seasonal squalls of West Nile Virus and Eastern
Equine Encephalitis. In South Florida, malaria reared its ugly head,
only to have it decapitated by the very capable Palm Beach public
Even as hordes of mosquitoes tried to inject us with their
deadly diseases, swarms of public health professionals inoculated
thousands of their fellow Floridians against smallpox, meningitis,
influenza and hepatitis. In this new world of weapons of mass
destruction and bioterrorism, we have come to appreciate that public
health is our weapon of mass defense. Public health sentinels line the
ramparts of our homeland, alert and poised to respond.
Today, few states can claim to have as finely prepared a public
health army as that which endows Florida. In the face of such an
extraordinary year, many wrongly expected our public health
professionals to waiver in their commitment to basic public health
services. Whether it was tobacco use, obesity or HIV/AIDS, public
health professionals redoubled their efforts to reduce the number
affected or at risk. They continued to deliver comprehensive refugee
health services to our newest Floridians while ensuring access to
primary health care for our poorest Floridians.
To my nominee for "Floridian of the year": For your
excellence, commitment and hard work promoting and protecting
health and safety in Florida throughout 2003, I salute you.
Even today as I re-read this Op Ed I realize it was a singularly amazing time. My most prominent memories are those that reflect the nature, the metal, the character of the Florida Public Health professional, the men and women who even today, tirelessly do battle for the health of their fellow citizens in Florida. As I recall, 2003 went on to be an extremely busy public health year but by some accounts the year that followed, 2004, was our finest. That was the year Florida was hit by four major hurricanes within weeks of each other. In our time of greatest need, our Public Health team stood up once again and proved to the world why the Florida Department of Health was the jewel of government and a model of service.
I remember every storm as if it was yesterday but our response to the last storm, Hurricane Ivan, jumps to mind, as I reflect, especially our effort to relieve our fellow workers from a crowded and overwhelmed hurricane medical relief shelter in Pensacola in the days that followed.
We decided it was imperative to take supplies and a team of nurses to Pensacola to relieve the crew that had manned the hurricane shelter in the Pensacola Community College gymnasium for the two days that straddled the coming ashore of Hurricane Ivan. We had gotten word that they were straining under the workload and the dire conditions of the aftermath of the storm.
We gathered in the small airport lobby that early morning. As the glass doors opened we were hit with a blast of hot humid air from the tarmac outside. We stepped out into the ferocious Tallahassee sun and walked the 100 yards to the National Guard helicopter that awaited us. The Chinook helicopter was so much bigger in real life than it looked in pictures and movies.
As we boarded the ramp in the rear I had to let my eyes adjust to the abrupt change from the bright sun outside to the dim light of the cavernous belly of the bi-rotor beast. I could see that each wall was lined by hammock type seating made from webbing. Strapped into each seat was one of almost fifty nurses. All had volunteered from County Health Departments across North Florida to go to Pensacola to help relieve their colleagues in the shelter. No one talked on the one hour flight. The noise of the rotors was deafening and everyone was overcome with the enormity of the event and the work to come. As they clutched their backpacks and duffle bags tightly their faces expressed nervous anticipation and excitement. Only a couple had ever flown in a helicopter before and many had not practiced clinical nursing in years but they volunteered anyway.
We landed outside of the Pensacola and boarded military trucks to the College. Pensacola felt like a war zone. Almost two full days after the storm and even with a police escort the trip was treacherous as we swerved around tree limbs downed street signs and traffic lights, power lines and other hurricane debris. The city had taken a pounding. The only folks out on the streets appeared to be National Guard officers helping man intersections. The parking lot of the college was filled with parked cars many damaged by debris that had blown in on Hurricane Ivan. Many had dents and broken windows. Pebbles used to coat the flat roofs of the surrounding buildings had been blown of the roof and fired at more than 130 miles per hour across the parking lot like a hailstorm of bullets.
The gymnasium was packed with people on cots, and on blankets on the floor. The sounds and smells will stay with me forever. The nurses that had opened and manned the shelter had not been home since the day before the storm hit. Many did not know if their family and homes had weathered the storm as cell phone coverage was lost in the hours that followed. They were exhausted physically and mentally drained but not one of them left till they transitioned the hundreds of fragile, sick and elderly citizens under their care, to the relief team. I have never been more moved by the selfless sacrifice and compassion of a dedicated group of professionals than on that day.
As I think back on my days in the Florida Department of Health the story above is one of a thousand stories that remind me of how lucky and privileged I was to serve alongside each and every one of the public health workers who worked in every county health department, headquarters and outpost of the Florida Health Department. Each and everyone is a hero in my mind.
Dr. John O. Agwunobi, as senior vice president and president of health and wellness for Walmart US, oversees the company’s health and wellness business unit, including pharmacies, vision centers and health care clinics. He joined the company in September 2007.
Prior to joining Walmart, he was the Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and an Admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service
Commissioned Corps. In that role he was responsible for overseeing the US Public Health Service including the CDC, NIH, FDA, SAMSA, The Indian Health Service and the Office of the US Surgeon General. Before this position, Dr. Agwunobi served from October 2001 to September 2005 as Florida’s Secretary of Health, reporting to Governor Jeb Bush. Dr. Agwunobi, a pediatrician, previously served as vice president of a pediatric rehabilitation hospital and medical director for an affiliated managed care plan in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Agwunobi attended medical school at the University of Jos in Nigeria. He completed residency training in pediatrics at Howard University in Washington DC. He did his Masters in Business Administration (MBA) at Georgetown in Washington DC and his Masters in Public Health at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore.