BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Dr. Joseph B. McCormick, the regional dean of The University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston’s School of Public Health in Brownsville, is stepping down. 

But, as he and his colleagues said at a fiesta held in his honor of Thursday, 78-year-old McCormick is not retiring. 

“I am still going to remain as faculty, still doing research because we have a big research program here,” McCormick told the Rio Grande Guardian and Rio Grande Valley Public Radio 88 FM, in an exclusive interview at the conclusion of the fiesta.

“We continue to work on identifying health problems and also trying to do something about them here in the Valley. That is what we are all about. That is what we have been about for 18 years.”

McCormick is a revered epidemiologist who responded to the first-ever Ebola outbreak. He went on to set up the School of Public Health in Brownsville from scratch.

There was a large turnout of friends and work colleagues for the fiesta, which was held at the school. Those present expressed pride in the work McCormick, his wife Sue, also a physician, and their team have done these past 18 years.

“For those that have been here in the Valley for that time, you can see the changes that have occurred, certainly in Brownsville but even outside,” McCormick said. “Our effort is to create what we call a culture of health where people expect to be healthy.”

One of the big issues McCormick and his public health team have to confront is the prevalence of diabetes in the Valley.

“Diabetes is so common, everyone says, ‘Oh, I am going to get diabetes because my mother had it or my aunt had it. It is inevitable, there is nothing I can do about it.’ That is just not true. Our effort is to try to create the environment, including a culture of health where people can expect, in fact, NOT to get diabetes and to be healthy,” McCormick said.

Teamwork among healthcare professionals and institutions is crucial, McCormick said in a speech at the fiesta and also in his interview. 

“Absolutely, it is the only thing that will work. It has to come from the community. I can empower, I can give information, I can give ideas but it has to come from the community. If it doesn’t, it will not work, no matter what I do.”

Among the countries McCormick has worked are Haiti, Zaire, Pakistan and France. Asked about his work in Pakistan, he said: “I was at the Centers for Disease Control for many years and worked all over the globe. I did all the early investigations of Ebola, for example, in Africa. I ran the high security laboratory at CDC for a decade. Finally, I decided to go to Pakistan to become the chair of community health sciences at a very good university in Karachi, the Aga Khan University. During those four years we built programs that are very similar to what we do here in Brownsville, with lots of community outreach, we’ve got young people graduating from the medical school to get interested in public health research in the community, and today, all of that still exists. I also created the first family medicine program in all of Pakistan right there at KU. So, a lot of things that we did are still continuing to this day.”

McCormick said he has learned from every place he has worked, taught and practiced. He said he has brought that knowledge to Brownsville but also learned a lot of new things in the Valley.

“Certain principals you learn and then you come here and you say, okay, what will the culture accept here. You have to know something about the culture and how you can make it culturally effective. I have worked in Africa, I was a school teacher in the Congo, I worked as a physician in Africa and Asia and South America. You take away an experience in each of those as cultures and you realize that culture matters and so you have to be aware of what that culture is and what it is likely to accommodate in terms of new ideas.”

Asked about the research work he still wants to complete, McCormick said:

“What I would like to see is how can we find early markers. For example, we have a lot of liver disease here and one of the highest rates of liver cancer. Can we find early markers that would tell us who is at risk? Then, can we get them into a prevention program?

“With diabetes, we have a big program called Unidos Contra Diabetes that is addressing pre-diabetes, that is people who are at the cusp of getting diabetes but not quite there. And for that one we are screening people. 

“We work with a lot of different institutions to screen people and get them into prevention programs. Those are the things I really want to be able to do because I want to prevent disease not wait until it happens. As a physician I am really more interested in preventing than I am treating. Not that there is anything wrong with treating but most people would like not to get the disease in the first place.”

An important part of the research is the Cameron County Hispanic Cohort, comprising over 4,000 people that McCormick and his team are studying every day. 

“We are going to continue to do that and we have collaborators at the University of Washington, at MD Anderson, at UT Health, at A&M, at Vanderbilt, at the University of North Carolina, at the University of South Florida, at UCLA. We have collaborators all over who contribute their expertise to help us learn more about the disease and the disease conditions here in the Valley.”

McCormick said Dr. Belinda Reininger is going to be a “wonderful” successor as regional dean.

Asked for a wrap-up remark, McCormick said: “It has been a great pleasure to be here. Many people said, ‘Why would you go to Brownsville? There is nothing there.’ I said, oh yes there is and I think we have shown that. We have shown the people here are anxious to do something about their health.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on the stepping down of Dr. Joseph B. McCormick as regional dean of UTHealth’s School of Public Health in Brownsville. Part Two, featuring tributes from work colleagues, will be posted on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018.


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