Nadine Burke Harris shares her personal journey to becoming California’s first surgeon general

By Austin Price | September 25, 2019

On Thursday, September 19, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, Surgeon General of California, shared the stage with Berkeley Public Health Dean Michael C. Lu for this year’s inaugural Dean’s Speaker Series event.  Dean Lu engaged Burke Harris in a conversation in which she discussed her personal experiences; her professional goals and accomplishments in evaluating childhood trauma and stress; her journey to state politics; and her current public health priorities within state government. She discussed her experiences as a child of immigrants growing up in the United States to the moment she became, as Dean Lu phrased it, “the most powerful health official in the state of California.”

“I always wanted to serve underserved communities and provide community health,” Burke Harris told the audience, which included a full auditorium and an adjoining overflow space. “I feel like this was something I was born to do.”

Burke Harris’s career has taken her to the front lines of the social determinants of health in pediatrics. As a pediatrician and medical director of the Bayview Child Health Center in San Francisco, she began observing how childhood trauma, officially recognized as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), affect health outcomes throughout life. This includes physical and emotional abuse and other forms of trauma experienced by children, which sometimes doubled the risk of their developing a chronic disease as an adult.

In 2013, Burke Harris founded the Center for Youth Wellness to push pediatric medicine to consider the “biology of adversity” and evaluate ACEs and toxic stress as one of the root causes of adverse health outcomes. Then, in January of this year, California Governor Gavin Newsom created the role of state-level surgeon general, a role that exists in only a handful of states. He chose Burke Harris to fill the role.

Thursday evening, Burke Harris laid out her priorities as the state’s first surgeon general. In her first nine months in state government, she has led California’s efforts on the path to universal ACEs screening on the premise that “early protection and early intervention affect outcomes.” In June, Newsom approved a budget that sets aside about $45 million to reimburse state Medicaid providers for ACEs screening and another $50 million to train primary care providers to administer those screenings. “That kind of state response is unprecedented,” said Burke Harris. 

“I believe fundamentally that social determinants of health are to the 21st century what infectious diseases were to the 20th century. In my role as state surgeon general, it’s my intention to lay the infrastructure to ensure that in the state of California we will cut ACEs in half in one generation,” she told the Berkeley Public Health community, with a call to action: “And y’all are going to help me with that.”

The event marked one of Dean Lu’s first public appearances in his current role as the dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. A Berkeley Public Health alum, Dean Lu served as the director of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration. He then worked as senior associate dean for academic, student and faculty affairs at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health before returning to UC Berkeley this past July to start his new role.

Per tradition, Dean Lu has continued the Dean’s Speaker Series by inviting an esteemed public health leader to meet with students and speak to the Berkeley Public Health community. 

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