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Dr. Alex Garza, SSM Health Chief Medical Officer, is the incident commander of the Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. He said that communities struggling socio-economically are affected the most in a pandemic.
Dr. Alex Garza, SSM Health Chief Medical Officer, is the incident commander of the Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. He said that communities struggling socio-economically are affected the most in a pandemic.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

Dr. Alex Garza: Mission is to care for poor, vulnerable

Catholic health care’s mission sets it apart, medical chief says

The Catholic community in St. Louis has a long history of providing health care, starting with women religious groups such as the Sisters of St. Mary who came in 1872 during a smallpox epidemic and became known as the “Smallpox Sisters.” One of the most impressive feats is the establishment of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital by the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 1956 after a fundraising campaign and a promise to serve all regardless of ability to pay.

Today, though many of the religious communities have turned over guidance of their health care operations to laypeople, Catholic health care systems remain important because of the mission to take care of the poor and vulnerable, said Dr. Alex Garza, chief medical officer for SSM Health, which was founded by the Sisters of St. Mary and includes 23 hospitals in four states.

“If you look at the populations we take care of, where we deliver our health care, who we want to ensure gets equitable treatment, we’re always considering the poor and vulnerable,” Dr. Garza said.

“I’m always reminded of the phrase ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, so you do unto me,’ (Matthew 25:40) and that certainly applies to health care systems, including Cardinal Glennon.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest regarding racism impact each other, Dr. Garza said. Communities struggling socio-economically are affected the most in a pandemic — people who do not have equitable education and employment opportunities and access to health care and healthy food, he said.

“You can trace that back to racism and policies in place to impact the Black community,” Dr. Garza said. The focus shouldn’t be just on the pandemic but also “those fundamental underlying issues that promote the inequity. Things like racism and financial discrepancies, all those things that contribute to the environment that allows the pandemic to take a bigger foothold in population.”

Dr. Garza serves as incident commander of the Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, consisting of the area’s four major health care systems. He’s known for his briefings with the media.

After getting an undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry, Dr. Garza worked as an EMT and paramedic in Kansas City, Mo. He is a colonel with more than 20 years’ service in the U.S. Army Reserves, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and serves as the command surgeon for the 352 Civil Affairs Command. He also served as assistant secretary and chief medical officer to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, playing a role in protecting the country’s bio-defense. It’s provided him a background in building a strategy to deal with the pandemic.

He attended St. Blaise School and St. Thomas Aquinas High School (a 1985 graduate), has a master’s degree in public health from Saint Louis University and was an associate dean and professor at the university’s College of Public Health and Social Justice.

Catholic teaching had an effect on him. As a health care provider, he said, though certainly not widespread, “we in health care sometimes forget that these are humans and that it’s more than just delivery of medical care. It’s taking care of the whole person. We can never lose sight of that, and that these are people created in God’s image. It doesn’t matter if they come in handcuffs or with their extended family. They all need to be treated equally.”

Catholic education provided him with the concept of the greater good, the need to treat everyone as equals, love for others and, along with his military experiences, a feeling of being a part of something bigger than oneself as well as sacrifice for others.

It ties into the importance of immunizations, he said. It’s well established that vaccinations do not cause autism or other maladies as some people claim, he said. “As a father of an autistic child, I have a little bit of added ownership in saying that. Vaccines by far have proven to save numerous lives and decreased morbidity and mortality across the globe than almost any medical breakthrough we’ve had.”

Lessons learned

Dr. Alex Garza wrote an article last year that explained how a pandemic would have an unequal effect on poor and vulnerable people. The article, “Guns, Germs and Health Care: Lessons Observed and Learned,” in the November-December 2019 issue of Health Progress was written well before the COVID-19 pandemic was revealed. Health Progress is a publication of the Catholic Health Association based in St. Louis.

Garza wrote that guns, violence and germs continue to plague our communities. They pose unequal burdens on different populations and are heavily influenced by social determinants. Catholic health care, in particular with its mission to care for the poor and vulnerable, “must continue to plan responses to small outbreaks of violence and disease as well as larger-scale disasters caused by them,” he wrote.

To view the article, visit bit.ly/3eglkw3.

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