Public health chief finds balance in his life

Dr. Francisco Garcia, director of the Pima County Health Department, sits in his office on Monday, Sept. 28, 2014. Garcia, who previously worked as a gynecologist and professor at the University of Arizona, took this position in . (Photograph by Justin Sayers)

Dr. Francisco Garcia, director of the Pima County Health Department, sits in his office on Monday, Sept. 28, 2014. Garcia, who previously worked as a gynecologist and professor at the University of Arizona, took this position in Jan. 2013. (Photograph by Justin Sayers)

When Dr. Francisco Garcia turns around to enjoy the view of Kino Sports Complex from the window of his second-floor office, he’s greeted by a picture on the sill of three of the most important people to him: his wife, Amy Schneider, and their two sons, 8-year-old Diego and 5-year-old Marco. Turning back around, he sees photos of two more familiar faces—Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, a duo whose social justice work inspired Garcia in his professional career.

“It’s really easy to lose what’s important unless you have it in front of you,” he said.

Balancing his professional and personal life is just one of the many challenges Garcia faces every day as director of the Pima County Health Department.

New Requirements

Garcia has been the county’s public health chief since January 2013. At work, he’s in charge of more than 350 employees who control everything from animal care to restaurant inspections to disease control. At home, he’s in charge of helping his two boys with their homework.

But while both aspects of his life are important, he makes sure to keep them separate. “My family is my family, and they’re obviously really important to me, but that’s a completely different kind of thing,” he said.

After Garcia drops his kids off at Davis Bilingual Magnet School each morning, he makes his way to his office and grabs the electronic device closest to him. He looks at 100 to 200 unread emails requesting assistance and triages them by importance.

Then it’s problem-solving time. “My days are usually full of meetings with different partners, with our clinicians, with our teams here,” he said. “My life is one giant meeting.”

A New Challenge

Right now Pima County is experiencing an outbreak of syphilis, according to Garcia. By August, 77 cases had been reported, which is more than twice as many as last year and more than three times as many as the year before.

Garcia’s job is to figure out why that’s happening and what the health department can do to combat an outbreak. “We try to understand why those things happen and put them within the context of what’s going on nationally and regionally,” he said. “Then we try to develop an approach to how to address those kinds of things. That’s what the challenge is.”

The health department has found that the majority of those affected by syphilis are men who have sex with men. As a result, the department has focused its attention on raising awareness on homosexual dating sites and by having bartenders at predominantly gay bars wear syphilis awareness T-shirts.

It’s similar to the action he took last year when whooping cough broke out at an elementary school in the Vail School District. Garcia had to keep children without immunizations away from school for 21 days. It wasn’t meant to be punitive, he said, but rather to prevent an illness from spreading to youngsters who could die from whooping cough.

Returning To His Roots

Garcia’s administrative job is very different from his previous position running the family and child health graduate program in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona. He held that post from 1998 until 2013. Before that, he trained medical students and residents as obstetricians and gynecologists.

Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs, a UA professor who knows Garcia from their time together on the faculty of the College of Public Health, regards him as a role model. “He is truly dedicated to improving the health of all residents of Pima County,” she said via email.

Jacobs praised Garcia as a great mentor to young researchers. “He has a very impressive research record in addressing health disparities, and he is very active in trying to promote vaccinations in Pima County and the state.”

Garcia’s research at UA focused on women’s reproductive health, specifically cervical cancer and prevention. “I’m most proud that I was awarded a distinguished professor title because it means that my research has value and has value for the institution,” he said.

But his background is in public health. Garcia earned a masters’ degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University, but he always had an itch to return to his roots. He also worked as a health policy staffer on Capitol Hill during the latter years of George H.W. Bush’s presidency.

Since then, he has kept the pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy on his desk. Both men emphasized the impact that individuals can have on society and how public health intervention can level the playing field. “Everything that I do has been motivated by what these two gentlemen wrote,” Garcia said.

Garcia was approached about becoming director of the Pima County Health Department about five years ago, but he wasn’t ready for a big career change at the time.

But it was different this time. “I had the opportunity to look into this new set of challenges, and it was a good opportunity, so I took it,” he said. “The reason I took it was because of the opportunity to use other tools in my toolbox,” specifically his public policy background.

Garcia has no regrets about making such a big decision. “I get to wake up every morning and get to think about how to make this jurisdiction a healthier, more livable community,” he said. “I just can’t be happier than to do that.”

As for his family, he’s thinking about them too.

“I have two little ones,” Garcia said, “and I want to leave them in a community that is healthy.”

Note: This assignment was completed for my Journalism 572: Science Journalism class.