Dr. Deborah Birx is the grandmother coordinating the White House response to the coronavirus
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday March 22, 2020
“I’m also a grandmother.”
Those were among the first words she spoke as she stepped up to the White House podium last week to answer a question about the coronavirus, the new flu that has changed the daily life of nearly every person on the planet.
Her name is Dr. Deborah Birx, age 63, a public health physician and the coronavirus response coordinator for the White House.
She’s also a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, chaired by Vice President Pence. That group “coordinates and oversees the Administration’s efforts to monitor, prevent, contain, and mitigate the spread” of the coronavirus disease.
And she’s there for good reason.
Dr. Birx is a public health physician in the public service, having served as director of the global HIV/AIDS program at the Center for Disease Control.
Dr. Birx is also Colonel Birx, having served 20 years in the US Army as an immunology clinician performing or overseeing HIV/AIDS vaccine research for the military at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, until her first retirement in 2005.
Dr. Birx is also Ambassador Birx, having served from 2014 as President Obama’s coordinator for the US role in the international initiative to meet global HIV prevention and treatment targets.
Dr. Birx is also non-partisan Birx, a rare bird these days but a tone confirmed in a news story, where a former colleague described her as “fearless about sticking to what the data dictates, regardless of the politics”.
As I learned about her remarkable life and career, I thought: this woman might have been a great contestant on the old CBS television program called “What’s My Line” where four panelists asked questions to guess at the occupation of a guest.
Birx, in response to a question, also opened a window on her personal life, revealing that she and her husband live in a multi-generational household with her parents, who are 91 and 96, plus her daughter and son-in-law and their children, divulging the grandmother part, bringing to mind the sitcom “Full House” and other family-oriented TV shows familiar to those in their bonus years.
I thought to myself, this remarkable woman – a physician, an ambassador and a senior military officer who also holds two US Meritorious Service medals plus the Legion of Merit Award for her research, leadership and management during her tenure at the Department of Defense – has a life experience rooted in a story, an American story, that is familiar to and will be admired by most Americans of any generation.
How do I know? We’ve watched it on TV, and our nation’s leaders have given that story in the person of Dr. Birx our nation’s highest awards. How fortunate can we be?
We are fortunate because a physician and a soldier who is also a grandmother can also understand the fears and concerns, real or imagined, of ordinary people. That can only be good.
Jeremy Hunt, author of “Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History”, has written: “If the terrible influenza pandemic of 1918 and the current coronavirus outbreak share one feature, it is this: People are terribly afraid.”
Hunt quotes Chicago’s 1918 public health commissioner, who said, commenting on the questionable value of wearing a mask,“It is our duty to keep the people from fear. Worry kills more people than the epidemic. For my part, let them wear a rabbit’s foot on a gold watch chain if it will help them to get rid of fear.”
Fearful? Angry? Puzzled? Apprehensive? Uneasy? Skeptical? Defiant?
I know from my own experience that the current situation has sparked all these emotions. Indeed, my own reactions change as I get new information and confront new realities – e.g., new numbers of infected and new “suggestions” that I limit my freedom. Yet, for all kinds of reasons – not the least the credibility of Dr. Birx – I’m complying.
In any crisis, uncertainty creates a hunger for information, and it’s believable and actionable information when it comes from credible people.
Communicating credible, spin-free information is one of the most important public functions being performed by Dr. Birx – and by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the face of the federal government’s response both on TV and before Congress, where he is known to speak with authority and prudence and to enjoy wide respect in the medical community, another bonus years hero at age 79, whom Dr. Birx calls “my longtime mentor”.
Still, with all her talents, Ambassador Dr. Birx would not be a good poker player. She has more facial expressions than there are words to describe plus a huge “vocabulary” formed by different combinations of eyebrows, squints, smiles, tilts of the head, nervous glances and changing stances.
When anyone else is speaking at the briefings – whether it’s the President of US or another physician or policy specialist – I always find myself listening to the words of the speaker but watching the body language and facial expressions of Dr. Birx as I score the remarks on my hooey-to-wow scale.
The late Max De Pree, former CEO of Herman Miller, the furniture company, and respected thought leader on leadership, famously said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to describe reality.” That means, first and foremost, telling the truth – and telling it in a way that everyone can understand and act on.
Birx is a consummate truth-teller, and I’ll bet that makes her a nurturing grandmother even as she coaxes and inspires her fellow Americans to understand the need to stay at home as much as possible, practice social distancing when we venture out and always to avoid groups larger than 10.
These self-restraints are not just for our personal well-being but for societal well-being – i.e., to save the US from the rampaging and deadly virus experienced elsewhere, one that is especially dangerous to those of us in our bonus years.