Waddell pursues public health at CDC Foundation
By Liv Osby
HIV. H1N1. SARS.
Not much more than alphabet soup to most.
But they represent some of the most frightening public health challenges that Dr. Lisa Waddell helped South Carolina manage as deputy commissioner for health services at the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Now the Columbia woman will help battle Covid-19 as chief medical officer for the CDC Foundation, a nonprofit authorized by Congress that fosters collaborations between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups to support critical public health needs.
The foundation searched for a seasoned physician and public health leader to oversee and guide the effort, said CEO Dr. Judith Monroe.
Waddell fit the bill.
“Lisa’s experience and knowledge make her an ideal candidate for this role,” she said. “We are excited to have her on our team.”
Waddell joined DHEC in 1993 after serving as deputy public health director/medical director in Richmond, Va.
During her 20 years at DHEC, she says, the state doubled its childhood immunization rate.
Since beginning her new role in August, she says the biggest challenge in controlling the virus is getting the word out that physical distancing and mask wearing work.
“We have a number of challenges. But we are seeing surges in cases all across the country, particularly in our young adult population,” she said. “It’s important to have young people engaged in the solution, in sharing the messages … that actions make a difference.”
One way to do that, she said, is to share stories of those affected.
“When I think of Covid, I think of the 28-year-old teacher where my kids went to school who died,” she said. “It’s about real people being impacted. Lives are at stake.”
Because the foundation is apolitical, Waddell declined comment on the reported political pressures faced by the CDC, except to say experts there work hard on behalf of the public every day.
“Our goal,” she said, “is to help our colleagues do the important work so we are able to fight this threat.”
Waddell, 58, grew up in the outskirts of Richmond, the second of four children in a loving home. On Sundays, she and her siblings walked down the street to the First Baptist Church of Centralia, where her parents, both educators, were deacons, providing her with “a foundation of faith.”
“There was a strong family system of support,” she recalls, “and a strong expectation of doing your best.”
Her parents also stressed service to others. That prompted her to spend Saturday mornings volunteering as a candy striper at a local hospital, which helped her decide to become a doctor – the first physician in the family.
“I knew from time I was 8 that it was something I wanted to do,” she said. “Being a candy striper reinforced that, seeing all the different roles in the hospital. I wanted to be someone that helps to make those decisions and provides that care.”
When she graduated from medical school in 1988, Waddell was one of the few women and only one of 10 African Americans in her class of 168.
During her internship in internal medicine, she cared for a young African American woman with advanced cervical cancer and a young African American man who’d suffered a major stroke.
Those experiences convinced her to specialize in preventive medicine and public health - which combines health care policy with the ability to see patients.
“You can impact the population as a whole instead of one person at a time,” she said. “I fell in love with it.”
A member of the American College of Preventive Medicine, the American Public Health Association, the National Medical Association and the South Carolina Public Health Association, she earned her MD from the Medical College of Virginia and a master’s in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Waddell accepted the position at the foundation after watching the rising number of Covid cases and the virus’s impact on communities of color, which has highlighted existing health disparities.
“You start asking yourself, what more can I do?” she said. “The foundation’s motto is ‘Together, our impact is greater.’ I was immediately drawn to this. All these issues are complex and that’s why collaborating and working together is so important.”
Among her responsibilities will be recruiting physicians and other staff to carry out the foundation’s Covid-related work, which already includes two data support specialists, an infection preventionist and five contact tracers for South Carolina.
She’ll also help build the capacity of community-based organizations, which, she says, are often better at messaging and programs, but sometimes need help.
The foundation has already provided communities with personal protective equipment, resources to help with lab testing, and financial assistance so people in service industries could stay in isolation, she said.
Other vital functions include testing so public health can respond appropriately, she said, and vaccination in all communities once a vaccine becomes available.
On the personal side, the former soccer mom enjoys the simple things in life - going for quiet walks, listening to music and spending time with her husband, Cedric, and her two sons, Donovan and Nicholas, now 24 and 23, respectively.
Those who know her say Waddell is a consummate professional and caring friend.
Dr. Raymond Lala, director of DHEC’s Division of Oral Health, said she’s blessed with “incredible vision.”
“She sees not only the big picture, but the global picture, and she has an incredible ability to be very detail-oriented,” he said. “It’s unusual to find somebody who can do both equally well.”
Over the years they worked on many projects together.
Once, he says, in an effort to promote oral health, they decided to try to go for the Guinness Book of World Records for the greatest number of people brushing their teeth at the same time. So they attended a Columbia Inferno hockey game and handed out about 6,000 tooth brushes to fans who would all brush at halftime.
“I don’t think anyone from Guinness was there,” he said. “But she showed up with her two sons and helped distribute the tooth brushes to the people coming in.”
Another time, when he was having trouble reaching people needed for a policy team, he recalls with a chuckle that she came to the rescue, telling him that she wasn’t opposed to politely twisting people’s arms.
And last April, after his wife passed away from Covid-19, Waddell called though they hadn’t worked together for seven years.
“She reached out to me and was extremely devastated with me,” he said. “That personal touch after that many years of working together, I think shows you her personality.”
Dr. Paul Jarris, former CEO of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, which represents public health agencies in the U.S. and its territories, first worked with Waddell when they both were at DHEC.
He was so impressed that he recruited her to ASTHO, where she was chief of community health and prevention, and then to the March of Dimes as deputy chief medical and health officer after he went to work there.
“Her skill set was invaluable,” he said, calling her a methodical thinker who can take a vision and turn it into reality.
“I tend to be the type of person that points to the horizon and says that’s where we’re going,” he said. “And she’d … have the ability to see all the canyons and mountains and rivers in the way of where I wanted to go. The things we’d have to overcome. That added a level of discipline to our leadership team.”
What’s more, he says, she’s “unflappable.”
“With all we went through - emergencies, public health events - I never heard her swear. Ever,” he said with a laugh. “She’s about the only person I can say I never heard lose it, whereas the rest of us would lose it once in a while.”
As friends outside the office as well, Jarris said he and Waddell talk often about their families, adding that she’s “a great mom who’s very proud of her two sons.”
“They’re remarkable young men and she just lights up when she talks about them,” he said. “They’re a wonderful family.”
Former DHEC Commissioner C. Earl Hunter worked with Waddell for about 17 years until his retirement in 2012.
He says she was the perfect person to head up public health services, overseeing health departments around the state as well as the challenges of chronic and infectious diseases. He calls her “exceptional,” “outstanding” and “easy to work with.”
“It was a lot of work … and there were so many challenges we had in our state,” he said. “She made sure we were doing the very best we could in South Carolina. And she will bring a lot to the table (at the foundation.)”
To learn more about the foundation, go to cdcfoundation.org.