Dear colleagues,

This past week has been challenging — no doubt because this coronavirus grind is wearing. But then there is this humorous meme that brings a smile to my face: “First time in history we can save the human race by laying in front of the TV and doing nothing. Let’s not screw this up.”

The comedian Mel Brooks explains it best: “humor is just another defense against the universe.” These days, in the midst of trying just about everything to save us from this vicious virus, we have the memes that reflect the frustrations of the moment but provide some relief. Look at the reproduction of Grant Wood’s famous 1930’s painting American Gothic:

The irony of this meme couldn’t be sharper. Essentially, this meme is another way of initiating the post-relationship mandate to socially isolate, stay home and expect that good things will happen by not doing anything that could foster further social spread of the virus. So that is what we are doing in spite of ourselves, in spite of our nature as homo mobilis.

But it won’t be humor alone or just staying home that will save us. This world is full of doers. It is full of individuals who thrive on getting things done and making the world a better place, especially in the context of extreme situations — like now. We are blessed with many at our FIU. There are at least four such individuals who refuse to isolate and let this disaster run its tragic and deadly course without fighting back. They want to get out there and stop it in its tracks. 

With apologies to thoughtful people who understand the original metaphor and the biblical origins and interpretations of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” these FIU leaders are our version of the “Four Horsewomen Against the Apocalypse.”

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse an 1887 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. From right to left are Pestilence, War, Famine and Death

Let me paint you my version of the famous 1800s painting by Viktor Vasnetsov:

First, we are blessed to have hundreds of high impact scholars and staff who leverage the blessings of their knowledge and experience against the modern-day challenges that confront us. You likely know Dr. Aileen Marty, an indefatigable physician, a 25-year Navy officer. Unlike the first horseman who symbolizes pestilence, Dr. Marty is the well-prepared enemy of disease. Dr. Marty is a professor in our Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. She has more than 40 years of clinical and research work in the fields of infectious disease, public health, mass gatherings, disaster response, and medical countermeasures for weapons of mass destruction.

Dr. Marty has traveled all over the world studying pathogens. Her formative years at the University of Miami as a student studying with mentor Sonny Gruber on sharks set the basis for her research and action orientation in understanding human-animal interaction and One Health approaches to disease development and propagation. Dr. Marty knows and has worked with leprosy, ebola, anthrax, Zika, and brucellosis, among other deadly diseases, and has served with Health and Human Services, the World Health Organization and countless government agencies in their quest to understand the positive and negative implications of pathogens.

Her plain-spoken explanations of the COVID-19 situation with local, national and global media have been a huge service to the cause of public understanding of what we are up against. She has been a passionate advocate for sheltering in place, social distancing and the use of face masks. Her calm demeanor and fearless willingness to get out in front in combating this coronavirus have been indispensable sources of reassurance and clarity for those of us who are complete novices to this challenge. If anyone knows how to stop this pestilence, it is Dr. Marty!

Then we have on our team Bridget Pelaez, an action-oriented license registered nurse, a certified paramedic, an emergency management professional and an innate healer and bridge builder, the antithesis of the Apocalypse warmaker.  She serves FIU as our Assistant Director of the Division of Operations and Safety and has deployed domestically and internationally to disasters as a paramedic, flight nurse, training officer and incident commander. She is the Deputy Commander for the US Department of Health and Human Services Disaster Medical Systems Trauma Critical Care Team. 

Nobody moves better or more confidently than Bridget in a disaster setting.  She has extensive experience in high-stress extreme events situations going back to Hurricane Katrina. There, she was called upon to stabilize, treat and transport critical patients as an emergency medical technician. Then she was deployed to Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake there, where she treated patients in Port-au-Prince and helped to stabilize the St. James Orphanage in Tabarre. Then, off to Dallas and Houston in 2017 where she worked to assist in post-Hurricane Harvey recovery.

Bridget and other fearless FIU colleagues conducted an assessment of the assisted living facility in Broward County that was an early epicenter of the pandemic in Florida. She has been instrumental in assembling, coordinating and distributing the 3,000 face shields that we have produced for healthcare first responders in Miami-Dade County. She has been critical in leading our efforts to set up a COVID-19 testing center at the fairgrounds, and she has been involved in training on the proper use of personal protective equipment for FIU on-site health care personnel. In short, in the last six weeks, she has been unstoppable.

Right next to Dr. Marty and Assistant Director Pelaez is Amy Aiken, a seasoned emergency management veteran who serves as our Assistant Vice President of Operations and Safety and Director of our Emergency Management Department. Amy started her first responder career in 1998 with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue as a training specialist. At FIU, her contributions have been deep and lasting. She played a key role in helping the university to achieve Emergency Management Accreditation — only six other universities in the nation have achieved this distinction. One of the few women in the U.S. in a senior emergency management position, she has testified before committees of the U.S. Congress and the Florida House of Representatives. Her steady hand, her professionalism, and her tireless passion for getting the job done have made her a critical cog in raising our extreme events planning and response capability.

It is Amy who leads our Emergency Operations Center and the countless table-tops and drills that help us to prepare for nightmare scenarios and actual events that we have lived through (i.e. hurricanes and the bridge collapse), and it is Amy who has lead our coronavirus response since late February. She is unflappable under pressure, commands respect from all who work with her, and was born to be an incident commander.

In this role, she must ensure that each unit involved in planning and response has the prior planning and capability to prepare for and react to the event in question. Unlike her malicious analogue on the black horse, who spreads famine and misery, Amy finds ways to ensure that each of our units has the necessary resources (training, equipment, confidence) to exceed expectations when they are called upon to perform.

The fourth and final horseman is actually named “Death.” Our Dr. Eneida Roldan is the antithesis of this. She is a happy, high-energy physician in our Wertheim College of Medicine who has been central to managing the overall flow of student and clinical health services that we offer. She is well-schooled with a MD, MPH and MBA degrees, and currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer for our FIU Health Care Network. Coming out of the Jackson Health System, Dr. Roldan is used to the rough and tumble of health care politics. But she has a remarkable and affable equanimity that has grown as the uncertainties and pressures swirling around COVID-19 driven clinical care have swung all over the place. 
 
Leadership scholars have long noted that during crises, people tend to look to leaders to help make sense of the chaos and ambiguity. A leader’s charisma can help — it inspires confidence, especially in public-facing roles or in larger organizations. But you also need results. Listen to Nathan Hiller of our Center for Leadership: “… the most effective leaders in these situations see and articulate next steps, inspire while constantly communicating in clear ways with different internal and external groups.” In the midst of all the swirling of the last six weeks, Dr. Roldan has become a master of the game. She has seemingly put into place procedures and approaches that maintained our confidence. At the same time, she has sorted through and patiently responded to the unending questions and asks coming from Washington, the state, the county, the public health community, our institution and those around her who counted on her to help calm them and point the way.
 
What do these four leaders have in common? Even though they lead with different strengths, the common denominator is their courage to get things done, their passion for impact, their unwillingness to sit and watch things happen but rather to be “out there,” and their can-do approaches to their responsibilities. Each in their own way help to take stress out of the system, rather than put more stress in.  Their competency shines through — they clarify uncertainty and ambiguity. They guide intentionality. Their authenticity provides comfort. 
 
So yes, while humor and irony can help us to get through some of the rough moments brought about by this global calamity, only competency, professionalism and passion can truly enable the hope that there is a bright future ahead.  Apocalypse beware — our horsewomen are real and they are not waiting around to see what happens. They are making things happen and for the better. 
 
In the Panther spirit,

Mark B. Rosenberg