Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Blackwell, Clara Barton, Virginia Apgar, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, Marie Curie are just a few of the many women who have made our lives healthier through medicine and science. While women have influenced much of our society and knowledge base, health and science seem particularly important today, as we are led by Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu, Director of the Fairfax County Health Department. As I receive email after email and attend briefings and updates on COVID-19, I am inspired by the calm intellect Dr. Gloria displays every time she relays information or responds to questions. It is leaders such as Dr. Gloria who will guide us through this pandemic and see that we emerge a stronger and more united community.
As the County’s health director, Dr. Gloria directs and manages public health programs across the county and serves as health advisor to the County’s Board of Supervisors, Health Care Advisory Board, and Human Services Council. In her 17 years of service as director, the Department has virtually been restructured from the ground up and several new initiatives and systems have been put in place. She has brought a new focus on emergency preparedness, health equity, the need to promote community health and resilience, and the importance of leveraging community assets that already exist if you want to create practical, sustainable approaches to complex challenges.
During the current pandemic, Dr. Gloria’s mission to reorient the Health Department toward enhancing community resilience has been especially relevant and invaluable. For instance, the Bioterrorism Medical Action Team that she created in 2001—one of the first and largest local public health volunteer response programs in the United States—prepared Fairfax County to make a seamless transition to the Medical Reserve Corps program. MRC volunteers are presently working alongside our Health Department staff to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Disciplined, approachable, passionate, rigorous yet flexible, Dr. Gloria’s leadership and work, honored through numerous awards, serve as an inspiring example to young women and men who aspire to making a substantial social impact because, no matter where they currently are in life, where there is a will, there is a way. No one, least of all Dr. Gloria herself, would have predicted that a young woman from Ghana who had to clean hotel rooms to pay her way through college would someday rise to such distinction.
One would therefore have imagined that a leader of such professional accomplishments would never let on that, in her private moments, she still struggles with insecurities of one kind or another, and that she still gets stage fright when she has to deliver a speech. Three strengths have helped her overcome her personal struggles and achieve success.
First, Dr. Gloria sets high standards for herself and puts enormous pressure on herself, routinely waking up at 2 a.m. to begin her day. Second, she never gives up—no matter how complex or daunting the challenge. Even when overwhelmed, she tries not to show it, although you might hear it as a slight stammer in her speech when the pressure is really on, an impediment from childhood. Third, her deep faith, upon which her entire life is centered, anchors her and gives her a focus that allows her to ignore side distractions and concentrate on the most important goals.
Throughout history, leaders like Dr. Gloria both inspire and protect us in times of great challenge and times of great joy. We are all in this together and we thank you for your service, Dr. Gloria.