March 20, 2020 Written by Kim Bradley
All of us at 2911 Group hope that you are taking care of yourselves and your loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic. As part of our celebration of National Women’s History Month, we also want you to know that there are extraordinary women all across this country who are working tirelessly to help those in need during this time of crisis. One of those women, Dr. Deborah Birx, is featured today. She is currently one of the United States’ top public health advisers on COVID-19. We’ll share a bit about her story and discover that her experience in tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic makes her particularly well-suited to the lead the charge against the deadly coronavirus disease.
Debbie Birx was born in Pennsylvania, graduated from Carlisle High School, and studied chemistry at Houghton College in New York. She earned her medical degree from the Hershey School of Medicine at Penn State University and served as a physician in the United States Army beginning in 1980, eventually earning the rank of colonel. Soon thereafter, in the wake of a personal crisis, came a turning point in her life.
In 1983, she was at Walter Reed Hospital giving birth to her eldest daughter. She lost a lot blood during the delivery, and the obstetrician ordered a transfusion. However, Debbie happened to read a report weeks earlier about a new disease that no one knew much about – and the risks of a blood transfusion were very clear to her. Just before she passed out from pain, Debbi screamed, “Do not let them give me blood.” Her husband refused the transfusion, which resulted in Debbie saving her own life - the hospital learned later that that the blood that would have been used in her transfusion was contaminated with HIV. That life-and-death experience set the stage for her extraordinary work in HIV/AIDS vaccine research, but she also credits much of her success to her family. She has stated, “[M]y parents, you taught me to live a life focused on others. My brother . . . taught me how to be tough. My two amazing daughters, your support and sacrifice enabled me to work tirelessly to fight AIDS, all those years I was gone when you were small.”
Dr. Birx’s history of service to this country and to the greater global community is impressive:
1. She served as an Assistant Chief of the Hospital Immunology Service at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from 1985 to 1989.
2. In 1996, she became the Director of the United States Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, a role she held until 2005.
3. From 2005 to 2014, Dr. Birx served as the director of CDC's Division of Global HIV/AIDS, which is part of the agency's Center for Global Health.
4. She earned two U.S. Meritorious Service Medals for outstanding achievement and service to the United States while serving in the United States Army.
5. She earned the Legion of Merit Award for her research, leadership, and management during her tenure at the Department of Defense.
6. In 2014 President Barack Obama appointed her to the position of U.S. Ambassador at Large, where she served as United States Global AIDS Coordinator.
7. On February 27, 2020, Ambassador Birx was appointed by Vice President Mike Pence to be the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Dr. Birx’s experience as an HIV/AIDS researcher makes her uniquely qualified to lead the country in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. These are her words at the swearing-in ceremony where she accepted the position as U.S. Ambassador at Large/Global AIDS Coordinator in 2014, and they are eerily applicable to the current situation:
“The community, both domestic and global, you’ve been the backbone of the response. Before government engagement, you were there, the voice and faith of the people. You hold us accountable to ensure that everything we do truly meets the needs of those we serve.”
“. . .[A]t the very heart of the AIDS response, it has always been about people, people who do the work, people who make the work possible, and most importantly, the people we serve. From the very beginning. . . it’s been a bold experiment, and I think many in the room would say a wild ride –but incredibly important. And the results that we have achieved are breathtaking. And indeed, the epidemic is in retreat in dozens of countries.”
“Although we’ve made tremendous progress, there is still work to be done. And this means . . . focusing on the impact of our work, the accountability and transparency. But our challenge moving forward is still to maintain that focus and effort.”
“We have invested so much and we’ve come so far. We owe it to everyone who still needs our service, and most importantly to those that came before us and have died from this disease to finish the job. . . . [I am] reminded of Nelson Mandela that always said it’s impossible until it’s done. And this can be done.”
If you read these words from Dr. Birx in 2014, and substitute “coronavirus” for “AIDS,” we hope you feel encouraged that this amazing woman is leading the United States’ response to the COVID-19 public health emergency. She serves as a reminder of 2911 Group’s eponymous message to all of you, from Jeremiah 29:11: “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the LORD; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.”