Traxler named DHEC Public Health Director
By Liv Osby
After 10 years as a surgeon, Dr. Brannon Traxler switched specialties to public health, thinking she’d be able to do more to help South Carolinians.
She never dreamed it would lead her to confront the worst pandemic in a century.
“We have numerous challenges facing health in South Carolina, but this is the most critical and the largest we’ve had in 100 years,” she told Integrated Media Publishing.
“And I hope we don’t have one again for at least another 100 years.”
In April, Traxler was appointed director of public health at the state Department of Health and Environmental Control after three years with the agency.
She began working in infectious disease surveillance and control and emergency preparedness, then became chief medical officer for the state’s Covid-19 response, which included statewide testing and vaccination plans.
“It’s been quite a year,” she said. “I have to remind myself frequently that this virus did not exist in humans before 2019. We were still learning as we’re trying to handle it, which is challenging.
“Looking back,” she added, “I don’t think any of us recognized that it could become severe to the levels that it did. Even public health experts.”
A native of Greenville, Traxler, 39, grew up in a family of attorneys but had dreams of becoming a physician since she was a little girl.
“I’m the black sheep who went into medicine,” she says with a chuckle.
“But I did love the sciences,” she added. “I loved medicine and how the body worked, and how when things went wrong, doctors could figure it out and fix it many times.”
Traxler attended Christ Church Episcopal School and earned her medical degree from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine after getting an undergraduate degree in microbiology at Clemson University Honors College.
Subsequently, she earned her Master of Public Health from George Washington University.
She became a surgeon, completing a fellowship in breast cancer surgery, and practiced for 10 years. But before long, she felt something was missing.
“I felt like I was making a difference for one person at a time with surgery, but I felt like there was more that I could be doing,” she said. “I wanted to make more of a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”
Recognizing that South Carolinians suffer from a variety of health issues, she thought about switching to public health, which had always interested her.
Dr. Spence Taylor, then chair of the Department of Surgery at Prisma Health, remembers that she approached him as she was struggling with what to do.
As a medical student, Traxler had spent her third and fourth years at what was then Greenville Health System and had impressed Taylor so much that he recruited her to the department.
Some residents get their jobs because they have top credentials on paper, he said. Others have good credentials but an impressive work ethic as well.
“Brannon was one of those,” he said. “She earned her surgery residency.”
Nonetheless, Traxler said walking away from surgery was “a very difficult decision.”
“I said, ‘If your passion is not surgery, if it’s toward something else, just follow your heart,’ ” Taylor recalls telling her.
“Shortly after that, she ended up at DHEC in a place that obviously is a calling for her,” he added. “She got into a role in the pandemic that puts you in the hot seat and she has done a good job for them. I’m sure she’ll do a great job in the new position too.”
State epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell couldn’t agree more, calling her an extraordinary team player, a tremendous self-starter and a really quick study who has demonstrated her commitment to public health.
“From the very beginning, she showed an unusual enthusiasm for public health,” she said. “She has fantastic initiative and willingness to help … stepping in wherever help is needed.
“I’m delighted that she’s our new public health director and I’m glad that she and I will be working together in her new capacity.”
Moreover, Bell says, Traxler has a wonderful sense of humor, which comes in handy when you work under pressure.
“It’s nice to work with somebody who performs really well under stress, and who doesn’t show that stress,” she said. “(She is) able to approach stressful situations with calm and rational thinking at all times.”
Traxler is also a “people person” who is interested in others, taking the time to learn about their backgrounds and families, Bell said.
Most recently, Traxler served as interim public health director.
“She has done a terrific job in the interim role,” said DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer, “and I am confident that she will continue to do great things for her fellow South Carolinians.”
Traxler said that while teams of DHEC employees are hard at work tackling the state’s health problems – the opioid epidemic; poverty, access and other determinants of health; disparities in care; and communicable diseases like Hepatitis A - Covid has been a major focus over the past year and a half.
And the pandemic became painfully personal when she lost her grandmother to the virus a year ago. Like countless families around the country, they weren’t able to hold a funeral for her.
“Losing her to this disease has been a very motivating factor,” she said, “and what has kept me from getting burned out or getting too frustrated.”
Covid has also prevented her from seeing family, with whom she’s very close, including her brother, who is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.
“That has been a challenge of Covid-19,” she said. “But I’ve tried to practice what I preach.”
Easter, for example, was the first time they were able to gather in a year, and then they did it outdoors, masked and socially distanced.
A self-described extroverted redhead, Traxler is a die-hard baseball fan who cheers for the Baltimore Orioles because a friend is a first-base coach on the team. She also has season tickets to Greenville Drive games and was thrilled recently when she got to throw out the first pitch.
“That was a big deal to me,” she says. “I really do love baseball.”
She’s also a season ticket holder for Clemson Tigers football, attends Artisphere and other festivals in downtown Greenville, shops at the Farmer’s Market on Saturdays and is eagerly awaiting resumption of the Peace Center’s Broadway shows.
In February, “thanks to science,” Traxler and her husband, Tony Roach, were overjoyed to welcome their first child, a little girl named Lucy, after a six-year journey.
In her new role, she will split her time between Greenville and Columbia as she has done all along.
“I’m very familiar with (Highways) 385 and 26,” she quips. “During the pandemic, I’ve been going daily.”
Traxler says she always knew what incredible people she worked with at DHEC, but has been amazed at their dedication since the pandemic hit, working 16-plus-hour days for months on end.
“These folks have given their hearts and souls to science,” she said. “There’s nobody I’d rather be in the trenches with.”