Dr. Debra Furr-Holden Dean, Epidemiologist, Activist, and Proud Grandma

Interview on the Jason Hennessey Podcast 07-06-2022 - Episode 32
Dr. Debra Furr-Holden

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden Strives for Equality, Inclusion, and Authenticity

Today, we have the great pleasure of sitting alongside the highly esteemed epidemiologist and public health researcher and professional, Dr. Debra Furr-Holden.
After earning her bachelor’s and PhD from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, she’s gone on to have an immensely impressive career dedicated to solving health disparities, advocating for preventative medicine, and sounding the horn for leaders to make change.
Probably most known for her massive and highly effective efforts in addressing the Flint, Michigan water crisis, she is also the brand new Dean of NYU’s School of Global Public Health, sits on multiple task forces for racial disparity and inequity, and even achieved the monumental feat of closing the COVID racial disparity gap in Michigan, and has sustained that progress.
Above all, Dr. Deb advocates for being unapologetically yourself and inspires others to do the same.
Please hit the play button at the top of the page and follow along with us below. Thank you for tuning in to today’s hopeful and soul-nourishing episode.

In this Episode

[01:34] Jason begins the show by mentioning Dr. Debra Furr-Holden’s airline difficulties flying into LA. Dr. Furr-Holden also explains how it came to be that she was booked as our guest for today’s episode.

[03:27] Dr. Furr-Holden tells us about her journey as a “public health storm chaser” through being the new Dean of NYU’s School of Global Public Health, an epidemiologist, former Associate Dean of the Division of Public Health at MSU, and aiding in quelling the Flint water crisis.

[08:28] Jason wants to know more about the Flint water crisis and asks Dr. Furr-Holden how it could have been prevented, when she decided to move to Flint, and how the city and laws have changed. Dr. Furr-Holden thoroughly describes the dire situation and its warning signs.

[19:15] Dr. Furr-Holden gives us a glimpse into her upbringing by reminiscing of growing up in Sea Pleasant, Maryland; being the “Bully-Bully” as a teenager in Flint; and her motivations and inspirations for pursuing a career in public health.

[25:03] Dr. Furr-Holden shares what a typical day would look like as the Dean of the School of Global Public Health at NYU. She expounds upon their mission and vision, and her philosophy of the role that public health, your zip code, and equality play in our society.

[32:02] Jason and Dr. Furr-Holden discuss the impact that George Floyd had on people’s perception of racism, equality, and activism. Dr. Furr-Holden also deplores Big Tobacco’s tight grip on health initiatives.

[39:05] Dr. Furr-Holden lists the reasons why she’s excited about her new role as dean at NYU, which include raising awareness of global health issues like vaccine distribution and period poverty, and the many doors around the world that NYU has opened.

[44:25] Jason is curious about the dean interview process. Dr. Furr-Holden outlines the differences between interviewing for a public and private university, and the unmatched confidence she exhibited during her interview.

[47:00] Jason and Dr. Furr-Holden examine the healthcare issues that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light, the virus’ legacy and longevity, its comparisons to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, misinformation, and their personal COVID experiences.

[01:05:00] Jason warms up for our signature segment, “Hennessey Heart-to-Heart,” by asking Dr. Furr-Holden where she sees herself in 10 years. Afterwards, we learn about Dr. Furr-Holden’s fears, dreams, strengths, purpose, life lessons, and much more.

[01:18:49] Dr. Deb plugs her @DrDebFurrHolden social media handle so we can keep up-to-date with her global healthcare activism. Lastly, Jason and Dr. Furr-Holden thank each other and end today’s program.

Transcript

Jason Hennessey: Dr. Debra Furr-Holden, thank you so much for being on The Jason Hennessey Podcast.

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden: Thank you, Jason, for having me.

First of all, you’ve got such a fascinating background and we’re going to get into it, but you didn’t just drive to be here, you flew in and it sounds like you had a pretty bad experience getting here.

I’m sorry about that.

I don’t know if we can name airlines, because I don’t want to pick on any one airline, but it was a long trip here.

Unfortunately, it was a collapse of bad weather and then a problem, a mechanical problem on behalf of the airline. But, what I also know is that pilots are overwhelmed.

They are.

And so, some of what we get, I think with some of these delays, is pilots are sort of standing up, and legally they are not allowed to strike.

Oh, okay.

They’re not allowed to strike, it’s actually- It would violate and damage their standing as pilots, but they can all coordinate and call in sick on the same day.

Wow.

So, I think we’ve got a little bit of that going on.

I see.

I made it, but-

You’re here.

Just barely. Yeah.

Well, I hope your experience in LA gets a lot better.

Yes. Also, it’s sunny, it’s LA.

You’ll have a good time.

So, one of our producers, Whitney, she’s like, “You got to get Dr. Debra on the show. She’s the best. She’s my favorite person in the world.”

How did you two meet, you and Whitney?

Wow. That’s interesting.

So, it’s LA right? So, everybody’s all connected, and I tend to hang out with busy, super smart people who do a lot of stuff. So, one of my best friends and roommate from my freshman year in college is a LA girl, has produced a bunch of shows and is very well connected.

And her and Whit have worked on a bunch of things together, so it’s like two degrees of separation. And so, next thing you know, here I am.

Here you are.

Yeah. A friend of a friend.

Funny how life works like that.

Yeah.

So, I want to get into your career, because like I said, there’s a lot to get over, to talk about here, but if you and I were to get onto an elevator together, and let’s say it’s 16 floors, and I say, “Hi, I’m Jason. What do you do?”

How would you answer that?

I’d say, “First, I’m an epidemiologist.”

Okay.

And it’s cool because on the heels of a pandemic, most people now know what that is. Prior to the pandemic, people will say, “Oh, I got this rash on my back. Can you take a look at it?”

[laughs]

And I’m like, “That would be an “epidermiologist,” but really it would be a dermatologist.” People hear “epidem” and automatically think skin.

So, what epidemiologists do is we study disease outbreaks. We study disease epidemics, and you now know, and many of us know that an epidemic is when you get a disease outbreak. And a pandemic, is when you get a disease outbreak on a global scale, pan equals worldwide. So, I’ve been studying epidemics my entire career.

Prior to COVID, I was focused on mostly epidemics around behavioral health.

So, drug outbreaks, drug problems, like the opioid crisis and things like that. Violence, we’ve got models for how we prevent and reduce the spread of violence. Very similar to how we prevent and reduce the spread of infectious diseases.

So, I study disease outbreaks, and then in July, July 1, I start as the new dean of the School of Global Public Health, at New York University.

That’s amazing.

I know.

Congratulations.

Yeah. So, we’ll be taking this work to the global stage.

Wow. But, you were assistant dean somewhere else, before that, or-?

I was an associate dean, I came from Flint, Michigan. I was leading the work of the Division of Public Health for Michigan State University, and I’m sure you’ve heard of the Flint water crisis.

Yes.

So, I guess I became a public health storm-chaser at that point, but I lived in Flint for a little bit as a teenager.

I became a public health storm-chaser.

My mom lived there for much longer, so when I heard about what was happening, it was one thing, but when I actually went there to see it, it was something totally different.

So, I actually moved myself and my two youngest kids to Flint in 2015 to roll up my sleeves and help do the work and the activism needed to bring that to a close.

Wow. How old were your kids at the time, when you moved there?

Well, they were the worst age for moving them.

One was a rising senior in high school and the other was a rising freshman, and I had my oldest who was, at the time, a senior in Baltimore, so I couldn’t move her.

So, she stayed in Baltimore, she graduated, but I did move my son to Flint his senior year of high school, and my daughter, her freshman year of high school.

Wow. So, we have a mutual thing about Flint, I guess. One of my clients really stood up for Flint: Ben Crump.

Oh, yeah.

I’m sure you know Ben.

Yeah. Ben Crump is like the people’s lawyer. He came to Flint, he and I have interacted a little bit, and he-

It was interesting because during the water crisis, a lot of people came and I’m a researcher by sort of down in my bone marrow, but we saw a lot of parachute researchers coming in.

Things like, people don’t know this, but lead gets deposited in bone, in the human body, so the same way you can tell the age of a tree by the circles in the trunk, you can tell a lot about lead exposure by lead in bone, and for kids, in teeth.

So, we have researchers literally in bidding wars for kids’ baby teeth, but it was for research purposes, not so that they could help those people understand what their kids were exposed to and get them the kind of supports and services that they need.

The Flint water crisis gave way to a lot of people who came in, I think, with selfish motives.

Ben Crump was one of the attorneys that came in. Probably the difference between Ben and some of the other groups is, he wasn’t coming in for a quick grab. He was coming in to say, “Flint needs representation because what happened here is a huge environmental and social injustice, but people need to be restored to whole.”

And, it was cool because Ben Crump did that, not just as a lead player in the Flint water crisis settlement, but also trying to make sure that the psychosocial impact of the water crisis on people got remedied too.

Yeah, yeah.

Yeah.

Ben’s a remarkable man, as you probably know.

It was funny, one of the videos that went viral of Ben had nothing to do with the law, it was him dancing with his daughter at a daddy-daughter dance, and it was just so cute.

Every time he sees me, because we see him at the conferences, the legal conferences, I’ll probably see him here in the next couple weeks, he’s always like “Hennessey!” Because that’s my name. But, he is a good guy.

So, for those that don’t know about the Flint, Michigan water crisis, fill us in. What happened there and could it have been prevented?

Sure. It absolutely could have been prevented.

The short version is, the water in Michigan is some of the most beautiful water in the United States.

The water that was being used in Flint prior to the water switch, came from Lake Huron, and people will, for shorthand, call it “Detroit water” because it was coming through a water authority rooted in Detroit. But, it really is pulling water from Lake Huron, which is one of the world’s most beautiful aquifers.

So, it’s just very high quality water.

Flint was subject to what is known as “emergency management,” so the city had been in distress, having major financial problems, and so there’s a law that the residents of Flint did not want, that the state legislature even shot down.

And then, the governor overwrote it and said, “If a city is in distress or failing, the governor can come in and intervene and appoint somebody to manage the city, and their power will supersede the elected officials, like the mayor.”

And so, that’s what happened in Flint. And, this emergency manager came in and one of the first acts was to figure out where to cut money.

And he decided that if we use water from a local source, the Flint River, instead of paying the cost of getting water coming through this water authority, coming from Lake Huron, we could save X millions of dollars.

And so, that water was switched and the Flint River water had many, many problems, but it could all be treated.

I don’t know if you have a pool, I have a pool.

In the first year as a homeowner with a pool. I did everything I thought I was supposed to do, and I did it myself and I covered it up, and when I took the pool cover off the next summer, what was underneath looked like a cup of coffee.

It was terrible, and I was surprised. I brought a company in and they shocked it and they balanced it and they softened it and they did all this stuff. Literally, just with the water circulating with all the right chemicals within two days, we had water we could swim in.

So, that water could have been treated. But, a lot of standards for how you handle water were violated. A bunch of engineering standards were violated, and then a big mistake that was made is to have to treat that water that looks like a cup of coffee.

The water became very acidic. A lot of the chemicals that you used to treat it, makes it acidic.

And so, what you needed to do, and this was only one piece, but it was an important piece, would be to add an anti-corrosive, because underground it’s like a little ecosystem.

If you were to look at your standard water pipe underground, you would not want to drink what comes out of it. It’s like this layer of sludge and biofilm.

But, it’s this happy little ecosystem, and as long as it’s undisturbed, it’s fine. But, when you flow very acidic water through it, it wipes away that sludge and that sludge comes out of people’s pipes.

And when that biofilm and that sludge is all wiped away, what it does is it starts to eat away at the pipes, and most pipes in cities like Flint are lead based pipes. Why? Because when these water infrastructures were put into place, lead was the best that we had.

Lead used to be in everything. Remember our school pencils…

Yeah, of course.

…were lead? It was in makeup, it was in paint, it was in everything, because it was cheap, it was soft.

It was hard enough that we could make sturdy things with it, but soft enough that it could be pliable. We just didn’t realize at the time what a potent neurotoxin it was.

So, very bad water flowed through our system, wiped away the sludge, caused the leaching of lead, and then once the pipe started to corrode, then things that were in the soil also became problematic, and before you knew it, a whole city was poisoned.

And so, when did you feel the need to go do something about this? You said you moved your whole family there. Were you getting paid to do that, or-?

In the beginning, I wasn’t.

Okay.

I was being recruited and I thought, “I’m never moving back to Flint.” I hated living there.

As a teenager, I used to call it “Mayberry.” I came from Washington DC, I felt like I had moved back in time. But, there were things that were cool about it. I was in a magnet program, I got a really great education.

The then mayor of Flint during the Flint water crisis switch was a guy named Dayne Walling, who was my classmate. We both went to- He went to Flint Central, I went to Flint Northern, but we were in the same magnet program.

So, there were a lot of good things about Flint, but by and large, it was just too small for me. So, I said, “You know what? Let me just come on a visit, and let me just see if there are ways that I can maybe work with them.”

I actually found out about the Flint water crisis when I was there on a visit. It hadn’t been publicized, and the water switch had happened probably about 6 months earlier. So, we were very early in the poisoning of Flint residents when that happened.

And, I took a bottle of water back with me and I had a colleague at Hopkins analyze it for me, and he called me almost immediately and said, “Where did you get this water?”

I said, “It came out of my high school boyfriend’s tap in Flint, Michigan.”

He said, “This water isn’t fit for human consumption,” and I almost immediately got on the phone with the folks that I had been talking to in Flint, and I said, “I will come, but I think it’s going to have to be for like a year or two.”

I did not plan on moving there, but I couldn’t believe what he told me.

He saw in that water, besides lead, there were all kinds of problems with the water. He said so many different standards of how you handle water, have to be being violated for this to have come out of somebody’s tap.

And so, I thought, they need not just a good public health advocate and a strong researcher, but they need somebody who’s going to be bold and fierce and bring a certain level of activism to this problem.

I thought, they need not just a good public health advocate and a strong researcher, but they need somebody who’s going to be bold and fierce and bring a certain level of activism to this problem.

And, I knew I was up for that, so I moved to Flint and I moved my kids.

So, mission accomplished or where are we at with that now?

Yeah. I just want to acknowledge, I am one of the many Flint water warriors.

There are so many people in that community and Dr. Mona, who is one of my faculty, who wrote this brilliant book, What the Eyes Don’t See, and really outlined what happened, really almost got defamed in bringing data to bear, to prove that at least the children of Flint had been poisoned and unnecessarily exposed to unacceptably high levels of lead.

Lots and lots of people, lots of community groups and members really did the work, and here’s what I can say. One, it’s better. Exactly how much better and for whom, is still hard to say, because we still don’t have the systematic testing of what comes out of people’s taps.

They’ll do things like test at the water plant, but there’s a long journey for water from a plant to out of your tap.

And, it’s weird. If you pull it out of the distribution system somewhere, or you pull it out of the water plant, that’s not what people are consuming and showering with. They’re showering with what’s coming out of the tap. They’re cooking and drinking with what’s coming out of the tap.

So, if you’re not testing what’s coming out of the tap, it’s like sticking your head in the sand and waiting for the results in your favor.

So, unfortunately, we don’t have citywide systemic testing of what’s coming out of people’s taps, so it’s really hard to say how much better and to identify the areas where it’s better, but still below an acceptable standard.

Now, did they change legislature too, so that would never happen again, or what?

Well, so the emergency manager law got repealed.

The emergency manager actually was indicted and has faced some charges and been found guilty of some things in his role in Flint, but not nearly enough people.

The governor was charged with two crimes that basically if they threw the book at him, he would be looking at 2 years in jail and a $2,000 fine, which doesn’t come close to the damage that was done.

And, they knew 3 months in, General Motor said, “Hey, this water is corroding our car parts.”

When you are dealing with- I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything with metal or even like cutting tile, you need water, right? It generates a lot of heat, there’s a lot of fly-off and stuff like that, and so water is very integrated into the car manufacturing process.

Of course.

And the water was corroding the car parts within days. Water is on the car parts for a day and the car parts are starting to rust.

This is the water that people are using to make formula bottles for their babies…

Oh my god.

…to bathe them, to drink.

So, they knew and you know what they did? They switched just those General Motors plants off of the Flint River and back to the Karegnondi Water Authority.

That is the water that was routed through Detroit from Lake Huron.

And nobody knew that.

So, not enough. It wasn’t good enough for the car parts, but it was good enough for the people.

So, the water is better, but what we haven’t done is address the real impact and the stress and trauma that people face being lied to by their government having done things, operating in what they thought was the best interest for their children and their grandchildren, only to find out that I fed my-

This happened to my high school sweetheart. His grandson was born and raised on Flint water. His mom consumed it, and when he was in utero for 3 or 4 months, and he spent his first year and several months of life on Flint water, and he has had problems.

He did not sit up fully until he was almost 18 months, and you have a kid, kids are sitting up by 5, 6 months. They’re walking around, running around, getting into stuff, terrorizing things.

By the time they’re 18 months, in my family, kids are running around and terrorizing, and he has been on a much slower trajectory and there’s no other explanation for it than his exposure.

He’s been interacted with, his mom had a normal pregnancy, so it’s like, there’s a long-term impact, and that will need much more than just fixing the pipes.

How do you fix people’s souls? How do you fix their hearts? How do you restore their trust in their government, which is a new government?

All the leaders turned over, but they validly, to me, don’t trust their government and their health department and their leaders.

Yeah, so that, we still got to keep doing work on.

Well, thank you for all the work that you and all the warriors, you call them?

Yeah, yeah.

So, going back to your upbringing, did you always fight for people as a kid? Or what was your upbringing like?

Yeah, so I was- It’s interesting, because I do believe education is, and can be, a great equalizer.

I do believe education is, and can be, a great equalizer.

So, I was born and raised in a working poor community, right outside of Northeast DC, Sea Pleasant, Maryland. And Sea Pleasant is this really small place.

It’s high-crime. I think the chances of being a victim of a part one crime is like one in five annually, but it was a place that I grew up and called home and I loved it. I knew all my neighbors, they knew me, I felt like there were strong values among the residents, but it was a rough place to grow up.

And in my family, we had a lot of great people, but they dealt with chronic health conditions.

It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized- And I had friends who would say, “Oh, my grams is sick, and I have to go home because my grams is in the hospital,” or, “She’s in hospice,” and I’m like, “Your grams? Your grandma’s still alive?”

And they’re like, “No, that’s my great grandma.” I’m like, “Your great-grandmother’s still alive?”

I went to college with one living parent and no living grandparents. My dad died at 37 from a ruptured brain aneurysm. Many people in my family had lost limbs because of things like diabetes or hypertension or substance abuse.

And so, I just thought people living sick and dying young was just normal.

And, I went to college and I realized, no, it was just me. But, it wasn’t just me. There was some other people.

One of my suitemates in college was actually from Appalachia, and here I am, a young African American woman from the inner city, and she’s a young white woman from Appalachia and we have very similar stories. Substance abuse, chronic health conditions that you really should be able to prevent and treat.

And so, I realized, I was like, “Man, we don’t all have the same opportunities to be healthy and thrive.” And so, it really just bothered me.

So, I’ve always been a champion for the underserved, but I went from being somebody who thought I was going to make my mark in health by way of medicine and biomedical engineering.

I wanted to make really cool lifelike prosthetics for people who had lost limbs because I fundamentally believe as people fight for their health, they should also be able to maintain their dignity.

As people fight for their health, they should also be able to maintain their dignity.

To shifting gears and realizing that through public health, I could be somebody who could maybe prevent people from getting sick in the first place and that I maybe could deal with some of the societal issues as a public health researcher and activist and practitioner that give people unfair and unequal access and opportunities to be healthy in the first place. Yeah.

Wow. There needs to be more people like you in this world. Let’s just say that.

I know. And they need to know that these opportunities exist.

I used to call myself “The Bully Bully” when I was in middle school, whenever people would bully people.

I was in a busing program. So, I was in a busing program. So, there were only about 15 Black kids in my school and we went to a school in a middle-class to wealthy white community.

It was the school district’s way of trying to level the playing field. And the bullies were everywhere but the kids from my neighborhood were tough. So, we never got bullied. They mostly bullied each other.

So, whenever somebody got bullied in my class, they’d come to me and be like, “So, and so’s picking on me.” And I’ll be like, “I’ll handle it.”

And I’d go to them and I’d be like, “Leave them alone, or I’m going to get my brother and my neighbor on you.”

And they’d be like, “Not those guys!”

[laughs]

And so, yes. I’ve always been somebody who was like, “No, don’t pick on the little guy.” And now I get to do that in a big way.

You do. Yes, you do.

Yeah. But the real bullies I’m taking on are mostly our elected officials and some really bad businesses.

The real bullies I’m taking on are mostly our elected officials and some really bad businesses.

Public health has tried to take on Big Tobacco. You want to talk about a big bully, Big Tobacco has all the money and all the resources.

Oh they do.

So, yeah, I stand with a lot of bully-bullies in public health.

Wow. So, public health, that’s different, I guess, than being an epidemiologist. Is that how you pronounce it?

Epidemiology is like a cornerstone of public health.

Okay. But it’s a different branch, probably, right?

It’s a foundation. It’s like if public health is the table, one of the legs is epidemiology.

That’s right.

Right. Studying the distribution and determinants of disease.

One of the other legs would be biostatistics, and that’s about bringing health, data, and information about what to do with health data to bear to understand how diseases are spread and who’s impacted and maybe a little bit of why.

And then there’s something about health policy and understanding how policies and things like healthcare and healthcare access impact.

When we say public health, it’s different from medicine because we’re talking about the health of an entire population.

And then the last piece is sort of the underlying biological basis of public health. Things like understanding how the COVID virus spreads from person to person and understanding the basic biology of the category of coronaviruses and things like that.

So, there’s an underlying biological basis for public health, and those would be the four pillars.

So, epidemiology is a pillar and a cornerstone of public health. So, I am one of the main pieces of public health, which is epidemiology.

And what does a normal day look like, you? When you go back to New York now, right?

Yeah.

You just relocated to New York. Yeah?

Yeah. Yeah.

And what is a normal day going to look like for you now as the new dean of the School of Global Public Health?

So, it’s cool, because underneath my dean role is a faculty position.

So, I’ll still have my own program of research. It won’t be nearly as big as it has been before being a dean, because obviously as a dean, I have a lot more responsibility.

We’re trying to create what is our global mission and vision for the school.

As I think about global public health, there’s a couple things. We’ve got people in some parts of our own country.

In Michigan, we have 83 counties. About half of those county health departments don’t have anybody with a public health credential in them, so during COVID- I mean, they have other specialties.

Understood.

Nursing or social work or something like that.

But when you want to talk about how you investigate a disease outbreak, that’s public health. You get trained in that.

That’s like your first EPI 101 class, is you’re at a charity luncheon and they serve tuna salad and egg salad and something, and blah-blah-blah, and some people get sick and some don’t.

You have to figure out what’s the culprit. And I’ll tell people it’s the egg salad. But anyway.

[both laugh]

But yeah. So, as a dean, it’s a little bit different. As a dean, I’m really helping to set what the global real agenda will look like for us as well as our local identity and our vision and our mission for our work.

The interesting thing about New York is in a public health sense, New York is a little bit of a crowded landscape. Why? Because we’ve got Columbia University there, who is one of the nation’s top schools of public health.

It’s not a school of global public health, but there are plenty of people at Columbia that do work on the global landscape.

We’re really trying to set ourselves apart and create what the global agenda will look like.

For example, we saw during COVID, there were literally countries in Africa where only five people had been vaccinated. The head of the country, that person’s spouse, maybe that person’s children. Nobody else had even had a vaccine available to them.

Meanwhile, we’re dealing with vaccine waste here and we’re throwing vaccines in the trash.

Public health is cool because it deals with not just the things that might seem obvious, but it deals with issues around supply chain and distribution.

That was the big issue. We had this vaccine that was life-saving, but how do you get it to certain parts of Africa when you’ve got to keep it stored? The first two that we had, these very low temperatures, and get it to people.

So, public health people deal with those types of challenges.

NYU School of Global Public Health takes that on and takes that mission on in a way for the world to figure out: How do we get that to the people who need it most, fairly and equitably?

Ah, so part of the mission of your new role is more global, not just New York, right?

Yeah.

Just, oh, what can you do globally to raise more awareness and make more change and impact?

Yeah. And if you think about it, unfortunately even in the US, your zip code is a stronger predictor of how long you can expect to live and the quality of life that you can expect to live more so than your genetic code.

That’s sad. Yeah.

And not that genes don’t influence and shape health and health outcomes, but your zip code is the most potent predictor of how long you will live and the quality of life.

Not that genes don’t influence and shape health and health outcomes, but your zip code is the most potent predictor of how long you will live and the quality of life.

We call that mortality and morbidity. Mortality being how long you can expect to live, and morbidity being the conditions that you will be living with during that period.

And if you know people who are sick or have chronic health conditions, many, even ones that they couldn’t control, like MS or something like that, living and not being well is rough. It’s a tough way to go.

Yeah. Is there any hope to making change like that? It seems like a big fight.

I think there is, but I fundamentally believe two things. One, that health is a right and not a privilege. It’s a birthright, but that’s not unfortunately how people experience health and access to everything that they would need to be healthy.

The second thing I believe is that it’s treated right now and this issue around equity, and I think of equity and health equity as the issues and opportunities for fairness and fair play in the world. We treat it like it’s a zero sum game because you got to think about it.

I’m going to say the R word, racism. Racism has winners and losers.

Even if you don’t want to be a beneficiary, I can say to you, as a white male, you benefit from racism. You say, “Dr. Deb, not true. I never asked for that. I don’t want that.”

You might tell me some story of your immigrant grandparents or great-grandparents who came here with 5 cents and a dream and a lot of drive. And the reality of it is there’s privilege that- That’s what privilege is about.

So, racism really does have winners and losers.

And what some people recognize is if we actually redistributed opportunities so that everybody independent of race or gender or gender identity or whether or not they lived in a rural community or an urban center had fair opportunity and access, things would look a little bit different.

People went up in arms over affirmative action, and affirmative action was not a handout. Affirmative action said, “10% of the PhDs in psychology are Black. How come only 2% of the Black psychologists in your hospital are Black?”

Affirmative action was about trying to make sure that everybody had an opportunity, but you could not convince people that that was not just a handout. It wasn’t a handout. It was supposed to level the playing field, and it didn’t actually even get the job done. It didn’t really get the job done.

Racism is a zero sum game with real winners and losers. We treat it that way, but it doesn’t have to be. Equity would actually give the fair distribution of brilliant and talent, which we know talent and brilliance is fairly distributed.

That’s right.

It would then allow it to show up in the world that way.

Instead of people who are brilliant, but born poor and their brilliance dying in the ghetto.

Or people who are brilliant, but disabled and their brilliance dying with them in their home because we don’t have fair access and opportunity and we don’t deal with ableism.

The fight for equity is about making sure that everybody, independent of their circumstance or their race or their gender or where they live, whether they live in an underdeveloped country or an economically poor country or they live in Watts or they live in Beverly Hills, everybody has a fair opportunity to be successful.

So, I’ll share a story with you.

Back when the whole George Floyd incident was taking place, and obviously my client, Ben Crump, was representing the family.

I’ve got a friend of mine, his name is Paul, and he has a friend. He’s a white male and he has a best friend whose name’s Whitney. They were best friends.

And so, when this whole thing took place, Paul couldn’t even call Whitney because he was just so embarrassed about what was going on in the world.

Eventually, he got the courage to call him. They talked it out and he’s like, “We need to do something about this because when my granddaughter at some point says, ‘Hey, Grandpa Paul, do you remember when all that stuff was happening in the world and George Floyd and this and that.'”

“Yeah, I remember that, honey.”

“You were alive at that time?”

“Yeah, yeah. I was alive.”

“Well, what did you do about it?”

And he didn’t have an answer. He wasn’t doing anything about it.

And so, he called up Whitney and they talked, and then eventually, they brought in Jennifer, a Black female, another mutual friend that he grew up with, and then he called me. And so, there’s four of us.

At that point in my life, I was thinking, I’ve grown a business and I’ve made a pretty good living, but I haven’t really made a difference.

So, together we got together and we created something called Articulate Change and it’s just to basically create social equity in the world. And so, it’s part-time right now and we’ve been meeting for about 2 years and we meet twice a week and we make a little progress and a little progress.

And at the end of the day, it was all worth it if we were just able to just change one person. And so, I’m fighting a similar fight, but yeah, just through there.

It matters. It matters, because you know why? What happened with George Floyd, for me, my George Floyd was Rodney King. This was the first time something like that in my lifetime had been caught on video.

And there’s plenty of video. You look at videos from MLK and a lot of the Civil Rights Movement and you see people being hosed down and attacked by dogs and all of that. But this was like a citizen caught this on tape and it was awful, and then you see pictures of Rodney King after this happened.

I was an undergraduate in college at Johns Hopkins University surrounded mostly by white peers when this happened, and I was heartbroken.

And I saw this guy and how beat up he was and what they had done, and then they all got off. A jury of their peers found them not guilty. So, that was like my George Floyd, when I really was like, “The world is – up and unfair.”

It’s evil. Yeah.

And you treat people less-than based on this.

What happened though for me during George Floyd was we’re all in this pandemic. We’re all at home. We’re all emotionally vulnerable because we’ve been in isolation.

I mean, literally marriages were falling apart because as much as people love their spouses, you didn’t plan on being at home with them for 2 years with no- right?

That’s true. Yeah.

And so, then this thing happened on TV and this, however many 8 minutes and whatever seconds happened and this man is like crying out for his mother, which that’s what happens when you reach the end, your loved ones, your ancestors, you see them because you’re about to transition.

And people saw that and it became inescapable. I can’t tell you how many people said to me, “I had no idea it was that bad.”

People that I went to school with who saw the same Rodney King tape, it didn’t impact them that way. There was something, and I’ve asked, I work very closely with many living Civil Rights leaders and I asked them, “Does this feel or seem different for you?”

And they said, “It does.”

Not because things like this haven’t happened, but America is in a different place right now. There’s a different groundswell of opportunity. Young, white kids are at the forefront and a “Hell no” for a lot of this stuff.

My peers and even older people didn’t quite get or feel how just bad it can be for people of color and poor people.

And then you’ve got also activism.

So, when you say, out of that you asked yourself the question, “What can I do?” That, also, I think feels very different because what’s happened in the past is people have shook their head and said, “Mm-mm-mm, that’s terrible.”

But something different happened with George Floyd, and during COVID and this all coming together, people started asking the question, “What can I do?”

And then some people actually took something on. So, it is a little bit different.

It is different.

Thank you for what you’re doing, and being an ally because the power of what you could say to a white male will hold a lot more weight than what I would say. You have a lot more credibility with certain people than I do.

So, thank you for what you’re doing.

No. And thank you for what you’re doing. We’re fighting the same battle. Right? Yeah.

Yeah, it’s cool.

And it’s very rewarding. And the power, talk about the power of social media now because you mentioned when Rodney King, it just so happened that somebody recorded it.

Right now, you’ve got social media, everybody’s recording it.

So, it exposes the problems in the world, but it also helps as being a solution to addressing some of the problems in the world if it’s used correctly.

Yeah. Social media is an awkward one though, because it’s also a channel to spread so much misinformation so fast.

That’s true.

And it also gives the mic to some idiots.

Yeah. That if you’ve got money, you can control the narrative, as we’ve seen. Yeah.

Yeah. So, I don’t know.

I do feel like if we think about the – And I’ve done a lot of work in the world of drugs and alcohol and substance abuse.

We look at the advertising budget of Big Tobacco, it’s more than- Their advertising budget alone is more than five times the annual budget of the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, and all of the Department of Health and Human Services Combined. Just their advertising budget.

So, you think we do all this work to try to intervene and get-

It took us 20 years to get a warning label on a box of cigarettes that says, “It might be bad and cause cancer. It might be bad if you’re pregnant and it might cause cancer.” That took 20-some odd years and billions of taxpayer dollars just to get that on there.

So, we tend to be outmatched by sometimes the forces of bad.

Yeah, it’s one little step, but in our lifetime, I wonder if we’ll ever see bigger change there. Yeah.

I don’t know, but I don’t think it should let us off the hook for doing the work.

Yeah. Oh for sure. Oh yeah. You still take your steps forward to doing that. 100%. Yeah.

So, with this new position, so what are you most excited about? Tell me.

So, a couple things. So, I won’t lie, living in New York is really awesome. And NYU is that whole area down by Washington Square, but it’s also a little interesting microcosm for the world, because there’s cool kids everywhere. That’s what I always say, “The cool kids hang out at Washington Square.”

There’s also some homeless people. There’s also clearly some people with some mental health challenges. It’s a beautiful park. It also has some security issues at night.

It’s interesting. I feel like I will not only be able to get the energy of New York, but it will also keep me true to what brought me to this in the first place because you’re literally standing in the midst of wealth and need all at the same time.

So, I like that and I do love living in New York City.

I’m super excited about the opportunity to impact health at a global scale. The job has baked into it a bit more credibility and I imagine there’ll be greater opportunities to work with organizations, like the World Health Organization.

I’ve already had outreach from people across different sectors, business. We got an outreach from a major makeup company who said, “We’d like to work with you all and we’d like to work with you.”

I’m a part of a women’s health group as an epidemiologist, but they have people from all sectors and said, “We’d like to work with you to launch a women’s health initiative focused on reproductive rights.”

So, it’s cool, because makeup companies have revenue and access to resources that could help us do reproductive rights.

I mean, we won’t even talk about what the Supreme Court may be trying to do with Roe v. Wade, but on a global scale: women’s reproductive rights, and girls reproductive rights, and things like period poverty.

Young girls who just don’t have access to the supplies that you need when you get your “mensies” every month. You can’t imagine what that would be like, to have to menstruate down your leg because you just don’t have- It’s called period poverty.

You just don’t have what you need.

Oh my God, I’ve never heard of that. Yeah.

Yeah, and so it’s a global problem. You haven’t-

I went to Africa for the first time and I had to get a bunch of shots and take a lot of different pills. Hydroxychloroquine is one of them. It’s an antimalarial. It’s the one our president tried to hoist on people, but- Former president.

But yeah, I found out, I was like, “Oh there’s parts of the world where a woman has never seen a tampon or a pad.” They just don’t have them.

They don’t have it.

You can’t imagine, but this is like what the global-

This isn’t globally, not-

This is globally.

I see.

There are parts of- You can’t imagine.

The pharmacy here, if you went in and they didn’t have the specific antacid that you like to take because you know you’re going out with the kids tonight and you’re getting pizza and that one does it for you.

These are pharmacies that look like a makeshift hut on the side of the road is the local pharmacy, and they don’t carry menstrual supplies. You know what I mean?

Nobody’s aware of that just because you don’t see it. Right?

Yeah, so it’s like, not your problem.

So, as the dean of a school, Global Public Health, I now have a much bigger stage and an opportunity to network and connect those dots for people and talk about things like period poverty, like, you will be forever changed.

You’ve never thought about that but there are literally parts of the world where people have never had a menstrual supply. They just use what they have, rags, or they bleed down their legs.

There are literally parts of the world where people have never had a menstrual supply.

Wow. So, will your job take you- You’ll be doing a lot of international travel with your job?

Lots of international travel. NYU specifically has 12 global campuses.

So, I’ll say something not as change the world but one of them is in Abu Dhabi. I’m really looking forward to going to Abu Dhabi.

That’s cool.

Yeah. We have a campus in Ghana and I’ve spent some time in Ghana in the past.

We’ve campuses all over the country. We actually have- NYU has a campus in LA and in DC and in New York.

So, I’ll probably visit those places too, but I’m really excited about the global work that we’ll be able to do and really figuring out how, as an anchor institution in this world leader in the academy, can NYU really be a bigger force in a global health equity revolution?

And they knew exactly who they were getting. Even throughout the interviews, I didn’t pretend to be someone I wasn’t. I encouraged them to look up my talks, understand exactly what you’re getting, because what I won’t do is come there and tamp it down.

I’ll honor and respect the position because I take the paycheck and so you can’t divorce yourself from “I work here” and all of that, but I’m bold. I’m outspoken. I don’t oftentimes just give my opinion and if it’s an opinion, I’ll say it. I try to speak from the science and the data of my own research.

So, I was excited that they were excited that they knew me and they saw me and they picked me anyway.

So, what was that process like? How long has this interview process been going?

So, it’s interesting. The private universities go a lot faster than the public universities, and public universities, when you get to the point of, oftentimes, deans and anything above that, in universities, sometimes they don’t do them publicly.

The reason they don’t do them publicly is because if you do it publicly, you won’t get the kind of applicant pool that you want.

So, imagine you’re a sitting president at University A and the presidency of Harvard opens up. A lot of times people will want sitting presidents.

So, you might be president at University A, which is a prestigious university, but it’s not Harvard, and you might have somebody who’s a provost at University B, and University B could be an Ivy or something like that.

Depending on what they want at Harvard, they might want somebody who’s coming from a very prestigious university or they might want somebody who’s a university president.

You are a university president at University A and you are there every day saying, “This place is my place. I love it. It’s everything. Everyone should strive to be like us.” And then your faculty or your student body see an announcement that you’re interviewing.

Because when you do this publicly, the talks that people give and all of that are announced and they’re like, “Hey, wait a minute. Our president is interviewing to be at Harvard. He just said yesterday we were the best thing since sliced bread and we were the greatest place on earth.”

So, it’s a process that typically spreads out over a few months.

Oftentimes, it is done at this level and above, not publicly because you just simply won’t get the strongest applicant pool. But yeah, so you start off with a field of hundreds. Everybody throws their hat in the ring.

They narrow it down to about 15, and then they narrow it down to somewhere between 3 and 5, and then they narrow it down to 3. And typically, the board of trustees or the president at this point would pick from that three.

And guess who they picked? The right person.

I told them. I said, “You all are smart because-” I don’t know.

Literally, when I looked at this job, I was like, if somebody can do this better than me, if somebody’s got a better acumen, a better background and more passion, then you should hire them- but I don’t know anybody like that that exists in the field.

No. Well, that’s so exciting. I’m so excited for you even though we just met, and I can’t wait to follow your journey.

So, I couldn’t bring you on the show and not talk a little bit about COVID, right, being with your background.

So, what glaring holes in our healthcare system did COVID reveal?

Several things. Our hospital system almost collapsed.

It sure did.

Our hospital system is totally like, “We are not ready.” We were not ready for COVID.

I had to tell friends flat out, “I would not do anything risky. I would not take your kid on some downhill bike race right now because if you break your arm, you might sit in the emergency room for 18 to 24 hours.”

So, we identified major weaknesses in our healthcare system.

We also have major problems with data infrastructure and the ability to both collect data and share data across systems.

So, in Michigan, once we got the COVID vaccine, we had like 70% of the data were missing like ethnicity and 44% of the data were missing race. So, we could get the data in but we couldn’t say were we fairly and equitably getting shots in arms because our data systems are just fractured.

Those data systems become important because if you- and I don’t know if you’ve ever had to care for an elderly loved one- I did.

Not yet.

It was the craziest thing ever to take my stepdad to the doctor and he would say, “What medicine is he taking?” I’m like, “He doesn’t know what he ate for breakfast yesterday. What the hell do you mean asking him what medication is he taking?”

So, what would he do? He’d lug a bag of pills to the doctor’s office.

We have electronic health records and electronic medical records because it was supposed to put everything in one place and allow systems to communicate, but the person entering the data, if they don’t care, the data’s not that great.

If you got one system at this office and then a different one at the other office, they don’t communicate.

Don’t match up.

And it literally costs time and money, and it actually costs lives.

I had an uncle who just recently went into the hospital and he had what’s called MRSA, multi-resistant staff arias, that he picked up at a previous hospital visit. Like MRSA lives almost exclusively in hospitals.

It’s the strain of staph that’s immune to antibiotics. Why? Because we’ve thrown so many antibiotics at it, it’s now figured out how to beat the antibiotics.

And he was allergic to an antibiotic that they used to treat it. It was in his medical record somewhere, but not in the one that the hospital he was at could access.

They gave it to him. He had a heart attack, and it ultimately cost him his life a few weeks later, and he picked up COVID along the way. So, COVID let us know these problems that we have have to be addressed.

So many healthcare workers were refusing even to get the COVID vaccine. And you got to think they were the people who saw people dying right in front of them of COVID.

So, many of them said things like, ” My job, they’re not even giving us a paid day off. I watched the other nurse get her vaccine and then she had to come back to work the next day. And she was dragging and her arm was hurting and she spiked a fever and she was sluggish. And she shouldn’t have been treating patients like that. They should give us, like, a COVID vaccine paid day off.”

Like very simple, basic stuff.

We never called a hospital orderly or an Uber driver or the girl who checks us out at Trader Joe’s an essential worker. We never called them that nor treated them like that but during COVID we realized that these people are essential to our first world functioning.

So, that’s a positive thing that came out of COVID.

It is a positive thing.

Now, let’s see what we do with it because making sure that those people have living wages and access to high quality, affordable healthcare and things like that will be the real mark of did we get better out of COVID, or did we just throw a lot of money at the problem short term but remain unchanged, and then subsequently, at risk for something like this to happen again?

Were there any countries that you looked at as a model of inspiration, how they handled the public health system versus how we handled the public health system?

Yeah. So, it was really interesting. That’s a complicated question.

Some countries, like some of the Scandinavian countries, basically just shut their borders down. Some Latin American countries did the same thing. They shut their borders down.

Actually, in our own country, the best pandemic response was in Hawaii. There was a period where they shut things down. Nobody could come in and out because they wanted to get a handle on it.

And then Hawaii said, “If you want to come here-” and they were encouraging people there because Hawaii lives in large part off of tourism.

And I had a cousin who was in the military stationed in Hawaii. So, he was really giving me the scoop on what was happening on the ground floor and I’m monitoring the data.

So, they shut things down and then they sort of figured out how we can contain this. The difference between the virus that causes COVID-19, which is called SARS-CoV-2, and H1N1, which was SARS-CoV-1, is everybody who got H1N1 developed symptoms within 24 hours.

Everyone, everybody. You got infected, within 24, max 48 hours, you had symptoms. So, it was easy to be like, “We got to get this person in quarantine.” We were able to contain it and prevent it from becoming this big thing.

People act like, “Oh, we had such a better response to SARS-CoV-1.” We didn’t. It was a different virus.

That’s right.

So, I honestly think our current administration is doing about as bad as the previous administration. I’m just saying, right?

And so, with this one, because you would be exposed and a third of the people were asymptomatic carriers, but they would spread it to people who would then die from it. It was a whole different thing.

So, what Hawaii did was they said, “Listen, you could come here, but when you come here, you’re on a mandatory-” And they changed the number of days over time but for most people it was like a 7- to 10-day…

Quarantine.

…quarantine in their facilities at your cost when you get there.

And then they had a program, they were literally paying people like, be safe and be in a beautiful place. Since everybody’s working at home, they had a program where they would pay for your airfare and you could fly to Hawaii.

You had to be there for at least 2 months, and they were encouraging people to work remotely from Hawaii. But when you got there, in their facility and at your cost, you had to do a mandatory quarantine for 7 days.

Then you had to get a negative COVID test and then you could go back in the world and people were walking around Hawaii with no mask, no nothing, but they were monitoring their borders by air and by sea to make sure that nobody got in without being COVID tested and quarantined and then you could actually be safe.

And they had the lowest rates of COVID transmission in Hawaii than anywhere in the country.

Wow.

Yeah. And most people don’t know that.

So, we learn from Hawaii.

We could learn from Hawaii.

There it is. I love that.

But here, even wearing a mask became a political statement.

Oh yeah.

Or should I say not wearing a mask.

That’s right.

So, it was crazy because I’m like, “You’re doing stuff against your own self-interest,” but it went along these economic lines, geographic lines, political lines, racial lines.

And so, we unfortunately had this terrible collapse of politics with this public health crisis, and politics absolutely won out.

And so, it’s unfortunate because, even now, whites outpace every other group. Middle class, older wealthier whites are disproportionately now impacted by COVID. They have much higher rates of COVID.

They die. They have substantially more deaths, not like whole numbers, but rates which take into account how big they are in the population and hospitalizations because of their refusal to get vaccinated.

There was a really great article about it in The New York Times a few weeks ago that breaks the numbers down.

If you look overall for the whole pandemic, people of color are still disproportionately impacted because the early disparities were so bad. But if you isolate it and look at that period post-vaccine, whites are now disproportionately impacted.

And for somebody like me, that is not a victory. The goal to solve health disparities is not for wealthier, whiter populations to get sicker and die younger, it’s for everybody to have optimal opportunities for health.

The goal to solve health disparities is not for wealthier, whiter populations to get sicker and die younger, it’s for everybody to have optimal opportunities for health.

So, I’m sounding the horn for our elected leaders and these conservative leaders to really represent and fight for your constituents. Many of them got vaccines in secret. President Trump, before he left the office, him and Melania got that vaccine.

Of course. Yeah.

And it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s had two or three boosters. Remember he makes his own medical protocol.

Yeah. He does.

He’s like, “I want all of it. Give me Remdesivir. Give me this. Give me that.” He wanted to throw everything at the problem.

And nobody has that luxury, right?

Yeah, but we’ve got other elected leaders who, for fear of losing votes, won’t be honest about their own experiences around being vaccinated and boosted and they won’t make a statement publicly.

And they know. They’ve seen the data. They are behind the curtain. They know the vaccine is safe. They know it’s effective at reducing severe symptoms, reducing hospitalization, and reducing the risk of death.

But they won’t say that to their people and their people don’t want to hear it from me. They probably don’t want to hear it from you. They don’t want to hear it from the people who made the vaccine. They want to hear it from people that they trust.

And those are the people who can say it and they won’t do it.

It’s a shame.

Yeah.

So, what do you believe is going to happen with COVID? It seems like that was so 2020, right?

Until the next surge hits which, according to my colleagues, it’ll be sometime in probably late July where we’ll start to see an uptick again. It’s going to follow a seasonal pattern that’s going to probably mimic flu.

And until we get a second generation vaccine that better maps on to the new variants- Remember our vaccines, we’re still using the same sort of alpha vaccines that were built from the original strains of SARS-CoV-2.

So, I think we need a second generation vaccine and I think we’re going to have to learn to think of it as a volume button. As the rates go up, we’re probably going to have to turn up protections.

Again.

Again, but if we could just get most people vaccinated, it would be transformative.

But unfortunately now, people are going to have to get vaccinated and boosted- and I know that sort of stinks, because it’s not what we were originally told.

People are going to have to get vaccinated and boosted- and I know that sort of stinks, because it’s not what we were originally told.

Most people felt originally when the vaccine came out, it was going to stop you from getting COVID in the first place.

And then they’re like, “Wait a minute, you did a switchy-changey. Now you’re saying it’s not going to stop me from getting the virus, but it’ll stop me from getting really sick or dying, but that’s not what you said originally.”

So, I think we need to do a better job with-

Communicating.

Yeah, communicating.

Managing expectations.

And managing- That’s exactly it. And you know, from the business world, that’s everything.

Oh, it totally is.

You tell people, “Take this magic pill and you’ll lose 10 pounds,” and they only lose two? They want their money back.

We said, “Take this shot and you won’t get COVID,” and then we were like, “Well, you won’t die from it.”

Yeah. It’s different.

It’s different, right?

Yeah. So, I guess it seems, for the foreseeable future, COVID will be a word that is around for a while.

Oh no, no, no. It’s even worse than that. COVID is here to stay.

COVID is here to stay.

It’s forever.

It’s not going away.

It’s forever.

But I remind people that that flu from 1918, that’s the same flu we live with today.

That’s true.

It’s the same flu and it had a natural sort of dying down where it persists but it doesn’t kill as many people or make as many people sick, and people do still die from the flu but not nearly at the rate that they were when it first entered into the human population.

COVID is going to be the same way. Remember, coronavirus is the same family of viruses where the common cold are.

So, there hopefully will be, like with SARS-CoV-1, some sort of natural progression where- because these viruses’ only goal is to survive. They are agnostic about it too. They don’t care who they kill, who they infect, but they want to survive. If they wipe everybody out, they won’t survive.

So, there is some sort of natural history around and I’m giving you like the lay version that their goal, if they kill everybody off, they won’t survive.

So, if you think about it, we saw like with Delta, Delta was much more aggressive and caused much more death.

Omicron caused much more infection, but the overall rate of death was lower.

Sure. Yeah.

So, it’s a real interesting thing. So, some of it will just get lucky, but it’s here to stay. It’s going to be endemic.

But I wonder because when you just say the word flu, it’s just like, “Oh, just stay home from school.” You know what I mean? Nothing of it, right?

But if you say the word “COVID,” it just has such a bigger kind of meaning, consequence.

My son and I were both feeling a little tired and we’re like, “Let’s just go get tested.”

And then the biggest thing for me too was I went to go smell my coffee in the morning and I couldn’t smell anything. “Oh my God. I think I’ve got this.”

He still had his sense of smell.

So, we ended up going to the doctor and it’s this whole new world. It’s like, “Stay outside. We’ll come to you.”

And so, eventually, they came in and that’s when they were stuffing it way up your nose.

Oh my God-

It’s terrible.

It’s so painful.

And so, we go about our business and we go to, I think, a CVS or Walgreens and I’m standing there and then I get a phone call.

It’s like, “Hi, is this Jason Hennessey?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Okay, I just want to let you know that you are tested positive,” blah-blah-blah. “Please go and quarantine for X number of days,” this and that.

So, I’m like, “Oh my God.”

Like when you’re told that you have COVID- This was back maybe a year and a half ago. It was like, “What does that mean? Am I going to die? What does that mean?”

But it was so interesting because then I went home and I quarantined in my office, but when I went to go to the kitchen to get some water or something, my kids would see me and they’d be like, “Stay away. You’re radioactive.”

Oh my God.

But the reason why I bring that up is because I think COVID will continue to have that kind of feeling.

When somebody says, “You’re positive,” it’s not just, “You have the flu.” You have COVID.

It’ll go down a little bit because think about it, when’s the last time you had a flu test, if ever?

Never.

Never. You’ve never had a flu test, right?

That’s right. That’s probably why. Yes.

You’ve never had a flu test.

And if you think back in 1918, they didn’t have the internet, cell phones. They didn’t have any of that stuff. They didn’t have all the misinformation spread. There were probably rumors and gossip, but they all just masked up.

They all just wore masks because they were like, “We know there’s something about this going person to person.”

So, they practiced really good hand hygiene and they had masks and they didn’t have N95s, PN95s, and all of this kind of other stuff. And they literally got back to a natural close and the virus itself followed its own natural course, and then people did what they could.

And there’s some really great historical writings about when people talked about it’s important to not gather in large public spaces where the air cannot be free and exchanged easily, and the stuff we even know now.

But we don’t get a flu test. Why? Because the flu tends to be- cause much less death and all this other stuff.

And for the people who are at risk for severe problems from flu, we have a flu vaccine and they get it. After a certain age or if you have certain conditions, you work in a hospital, people just get that flu vaccine every year without a problem.

COVID has this weird thing attached to it right now with politics and a little bit of stigma, and some people just literally, they were like, “Warp speed? Operation Warp Speed? I don’t want anything injected in my arm that you made at warp speed.”

And we said, “MRNA vaccine.” They’re like, “MRNA? That’s like my DNA. That’s my first cousin of my DNA. I’m not going to take that vaccine, because it’s going to change my DNA.”

There are people who still believe all of that stuff.

Oh, yeah.

I think eventually over time, all of that stuff will go away. The virus will cause a lot less death and disability, because that will be the natural course of it. It’s years away and it will eventually just be like the flu.

We’ve already seen COVID testing going, like, down, way down, way less available.

Yeah.

It’s going to be just like the flu.

And so, what I would say to people that I really don’t understand, if you have the flu, you stay home.

People got over COVID so quickly and were like, “I’m so sick of it.” And they would know that they would have COVID and they would still go out.

I don’t care if you got the flu, a cold, or COVID, if you’re sick…

Stay away from people.

…stay home.

Yeah.

Like keep your germs to yourself.

Common sense. Right?

But people don’t do that.

So, that is one thing I wish could be a legacy of COVID, that people would just be like, if you’re sick, stay home.

That is one thing I wish could be a legacy of COVID, that people would just be like, if you’re sick, stay home.

The word quarantining was- that’s probably the word of 2020, right?

Yeah.

Quarantine, right?

Yeah.

You never used that word really before.

Yeah, sure did.

Right?

Yeah.

Well, we’re going to do something called “Heart-to-Heart” where I ask a couple questions and then you just say whatever comes to your mind.

Before I do that, I got one question for you.

So like, where do you see yourself, do you see yourself in 10 years? Do you see yourself getting into politics, where do you see your path going?

I would rather rip my eyelashes out with two hot butter knives than be a politician. That will never happen.

Never happen. Huh?

It will never happen. I don’t ever want to be beholden to the government that way.

And don’t get me wrong, I work very closely with many elected officials and I see the value in what they do. It’s just not my expression.

You’re a people’s person and I want to get behind you. Okay.

And I found the place where I want to make my difference, which is in the academy. I love the academy. I love the fact that I found a niche where I can both be a scholar and an activist.

I love the fact that I found a niche where I can both be a scholar and an activist.

And there’s this amazing thing you get called tenure, which basically is a job and a salary for life. But basically, right? If you do something extra stupid, You can get your tenure revoked, but I don’t plan on doing that.

And so, where you will probably see me in the next 5 to 10 years is I’ll be a university president.

Good.

At some university where I can make an even bigger difference and open up the pipeline because, just like for me, education was that great equalizer.

I know it will be also for people like my roommate from Appalachia, or people who come from neighborhoods like mine.

Love it.

Yeah.

Like I love to follow your journey.

Yeah.

Keep in touch.

All right. So, here’s “Hennessey Heart-to-Heart,” again, I just ask a couple questions and just quick responses, whatever comes to mind.

Okay.

What book have you read or film have you seen that has greatly influenced or inspired you?

You would think I, like, got a whole rack of books and a really cool library in my new apartment, and films.

Let me see. What’s the last book I read? The last book I read was Shonda RhimesYear of Yes, actually, is the last book that I read.

So, I’ll just tell you what inspired me about that is, and it’s funny, right? Because you go through different seasons, but in Year of Yes she literally talks about- I’m surprised to find out what a, like, a shy person she sort of is and, like, kind of a to-herself person.

And she just decided to put herself out there and be a yes to, like, everything that kind of came her way.

Interesting.

Yeah. It’s called the Year of Yes. And she talks about being a yes to spending time with her nephews, and her kids, and all this stuff.

And I’m a new grandma, I have a 9-month-old…

Oh, congratulations!

…granddaughter who is like the light of my life.

And so, I mean, mind you, I’m the opposite. I’m like, “I say yes to way too many things.”

Yeah.

But this idea of being bold and venturing into the spaces where you haven’t gone and being yes to those things does excite me.

Got it.

Yeah.

Speaking of bold, when in your life were you scared to make a big decision or a big change, and then how did that turn out?

I was pretty scared to go back to Flint, honestly. And the fear that I had was about taking my children.

I was clear, it felt like a calling to me, but my mom moved me to Flint my freshman year in high school. And here I was moving my youngest daughter, my son to Flint in the- to an environmental disaster.

My big fear was, are they going to hate me the way I hated my mom for moving me to Flint?

And how did it turn out?

I live in New York City and they still live in Flint.

Yeah. Huh. Okay. Yeah.

They- Don’t get me wrong, my daughter is on a full-ride in college there and my son is in a audio engineering program there.

But when I tell you, they have figured out how to maximize and make the best out of it. My daughter, when I go there next week, is delivering a check for like $4,000 to a place where she did a fundraiser.

She wrote a kid’s book and she’s delivering the check to them, the last check of the proceeds from that fundraiser.

So they, like, got their mojo there and-

Love it.

Yeah.

And what’s your daughter’s book? We’ll link to it.

It’s called The Flint Kids Book.

Okay. There it is, see.

Yes and I’ll give you a link for it. And I actually can ship you all a case or two if you’d like.

Thank you. Yeah. I love that.

Yep.

Following in her mom’s footsteps, huh?

Yeah.

What is your happiest childhood memory?

Probably family cookouts.

Yeah.

Yeah. I love family.

And we had a cookout at somebody’s house almost every weekend, And I can still hear the music and smell the hot dogs burning on the grill.

And it was just a time when life was simple, you know?

And so, yeah, family cookouts on Saturdays.

So, when you’re at, like, a park and somebody’s grilling, you smell that, it brings back that sense of nostalgia, huh?

I can smell it. It’s like on Ratatouille when he tastes the ratatouille and he goes back to when he was a kid and his mom.

Yeah, sure.

Do you remember your dreams and what kind of things do you dream about?

I do remember my dreams, or at least I remember some bits and pieces of them.

What’s the funniest thing about how my dreams work is, if it doesn’t go the way I want it to go, I tend to wake up and I’m like, I kind of shake it off and then I go back to sleep and somehow I’m re-dreaming it and trying to get it right…

Oh, yeah. That happens.

…and get it fixed.

Yeah.

But yeah, I’m constantly dreaming, like, bigger and better.

I’m constantly dreaming, like, bigger and better.

Okay.

I’m always like replaying the dream and kind of, like, trying to get it right. Yeah.

What life lesson have you learned the hard way?

Believe who people are the first time they show you.

And we were talking about that before we jumped on this podcast, right? About what happens during circumstances and your true colors come out.

That’s who you really are, right?

Yeah. Yep.

What’s something that you wish all kids knew?

That they matter. Some kids don’t know that.

They come from, and it has nothing to do with wealth or anything. There are kids who grow up in wealth and never really had anybody put them first or let them know that their gifts and talents are special and make them unique and that they matter.

You know, they matter.

So, I fundamentally think our job as parents, and godparents, and aunts and uncles, and teachers, and all of that is to just reaffirm them and let them know that they matter.

That’s a good message.

Are you superstitious at all?

Yes.

Yeah.

Yeah, and I do believe that Tupac‘s still alive, living somewhere. Biggie is dead, but Tupac, I don’t know.

Literally, he just has a new restaurant that opened. I saw it on TV today!

They have a whole museum here, right? They’re building.

I’m like, he has more music that came out after he died than before he died.

And one of my students, when I used to be at Morgan State University, told me she saw him on a boat in Senegal. So, yeah. I’m superstitious.

I don’t like to split poles when we’re walking down the streets. I don’t step on the cracks in the pavement. Yeah, all that stuff.

Yeah. Wow.

There’s no 13th floor in my building in New York, so it, like, fits right in.

Except Plaza.

So, when I went to New York and we stayed at the Plaza Hotel-

Yeah, they have a 13th floor.

We were on the 13th floor and I’m like, “This isn’t right.”

Like, we actually had to stay on the 13th floor of the Plaza Hotel. So, that one has a 13th floor.

I grew up in New York.

Okay.

Long Island is where I grew up. Yeah.

For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

Oh, man. That I’m like this little girl from Sea Pleasant and I get to come on The Jason Hennessey Podcast.

I’ve probably gotten to mentor, I don’t know, probably 30, 40 scholars sort of like me. That people call on me for things that matter, like, that I get the microphone.

Fundamentally, most people in public health are people who want to do something that makes a difference. And I’m just really grateful for the profound opportunity and privilege to be somebody who actually gets to live a life where I know I make a difference.

That’s awesome.

What makes you laugh?

This is not nice, but I think it’s really funny when people trip, not when they hurt themselves. Not when they hurt themselves.

I don’t know. I think I got conditioned like that when I was- would watch, like, cartoons and somebody would slip on a banana peel and you’d laugh. It’s like the funny-

My kids, we’re all terrible that way. We will run over, the second we find out you’re okay, we’re laughing.

Or like when, like, a glass is so, like, clear that people walk into the glass. That’s hilarious.

It’s funny, I know.

And I don’t mean like, I don’t want anybody to get hurt.

They don’t get hurt, yeah, but it’s funny. Right?

But yeah, yeah.

I agree.

What’s your biggest fear?

Probably that I will go too far, out of a commitment and it, like, undermines who I really am and what I really stand for. You know what I mean?

Like, I’ve dropped a few F-bombs to some very important people because I’m like, “I’m not here for you, and I don’t work for you, and I’m not beholden to you.”

And as I think back, I sort of feel like in my youth, I had the opportunity, because of my youth, to say and do what made sense to me.

But I do feel like as I’ve gotten a little bit older, I’m like, it’s like, you don’t want to shoot down the choir. You don’t want to alienate people or undermine your reputation as somebody who is not safe to disagree with or anything like that.

So, sometimes I worry like that fire that I have, if it’s not managed, it can burn you out. Like you can actually-

Oh, yeah. I can see that.

It can overtake you, right?

Yeah.

So, I’m not overly worried about it, but because I’m growing and trusting myself and just being like, “You’re good.”

I’ve done a lot of life work to be like a human being that not only others can trust, but that I can trust.

I’ve done a lot of life work to be like a human being that not only others can trust, but that I can trust.

Sure. Yeah.

You know? But…

That’s important.

…you catch me on the wrong day, I might be out there like Billy Porter, letting people have it.

[both laugh]

Nobody knows that reference, but that’ll be our inside little secret.

What would you say is your greatest strength?

I’m unapologetically me, and around me people get themselves, because they actually get what it is to be unapologetically yourself.

And I really got it. It’s like giving permission to everybody to just be who they are, the way they are, and the way they are not. And I get that a lot.

People say, “You’re so authentic.”

And I’m like, “Great. Take that on for yourself. It’s a great life.”

Oh, I love it.

Yeah.

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?

I ride a motorcycle.

I wouldn’t- See? Okay.

I considered a career as a poker pro.

Really?

I really did. I’ve been- I grew up around poker players, my grandfather and all his buddies used to have a Friday night poker game at my house.

And when I was 9, I got the distinction of being the setup girl. So, it was my job to make sure that all the players had ice in their cups and, like, a little something to eat.

And I would let my grandfather know if I thought anybody was cheating or doing anything out of line and they would tip me. So, I was 9 years old making like $75, $80 bucks every Friday night as the setup girl.

And so, yeah, by the time I was probably 13, I was gambling and played in a few poker tournaments and did really well.

So, if this whole public health thing didn’t work out, I might have been a poker pro.

Yeah, you got a backup here. [laughs] That’s awesome.

Yeah.

When do you feel most connected to your life purpose?

When I’m being with people that I am out to impact.

Okay.

I fundamentally believe you have to do it with people, not for them or on their behalf.

So, there’s something about- I did a lot of work in the substance abuse area, being in a substance abuse treatment program for people who are new in their recovery and just sitting with them, and being with them, and hearing about what matters to them, and hear about how their program and their recovery is going.

Going to Africa and sitting in a village where we sent $5,000 bucks and they got a potable water system. And seeing the difference that makes there, it’s like actually being with people.

Got it.

And then one final question. Out of all the things that you’ve accomplished in your life, what do you feel you’re most proud of?

Being a grandma.

Yeah.

Yeah. I’m not even kidding you. Being a grandma.

And it’s not like an accomplishment, because she’s not like my property, but being a grandma means that I did not foil these three beautiful creatures that I got the opportunity to shepherd through life.

And not only did I not foil them, one of them is now a shepherd. Right? Because our kids are not our kids. We don’t own them. They’re not our property.

I think our biggest job is to not screw them up with our ideals and our ideas about who they should and could be, but let- just encourage them and let them know they matter.

And now I get to be that for my granddaughter who, by the way, looks just like me.

Aww, what’s her name?

Her name’s India.

And as soon as she can talk, I’m hoping she doesn’t say, “Grandma, can I have your paycheck?” because I would give her the whole thing. Yeah.

[laughs] Oh, that’s so adorable.

I got a 5-year-old daughter.

Yeah.

And I’ve got a 17-year-old son and a 19-year-old son, but boy, my 5-year-old daughter has the…

Oh, she’s probably got you right here.

…keys to my heart, for sure. And I don’t even know what it’s going to be like when I have grandkids.

Yeah. That’s a special time.

Yeah.

Well, Debra, Dr. Debra, I should say, thank you so much for coming out, flying all the way out here, dealing with that airline that we’re not going to mention, that I hope you get your credit for.

Yes. I will be fleecing them tonight, yes.

You are a superhero in my world.

I appreciate all the work that you’re doing and I really look forward to following you in your journey.

Awesome. Thanks, Jason. This was a blast.

And how can people keep in touch with you?

You can follow me on social media on all channels. I’m @drdebfurrholden. D-R D-E-B F-U-R-R H-O-L-D-E-N.

There you go.

@drdebfurrholden. And now in my new NYU role, I believe I’m @gphdean, Global Public Health Dean.

Got it.

Yeah.

Congratulations. Thank you again for being on the show.

All right, thanks.

Important Links

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden’s Wikipedia Page

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden on LinkedIn

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden on Instagram

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden on Twitter

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden on Facebook

NYU School of Global Public Health

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