When Dr. Brannon Traxler became the director of public health for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control in April 2021, there was no way for her to ease slowly into her new role. The pandemic was in full roar. Heroic, exhausted nurses were leaving the profession in record numbers, and, as Dr. Traxler knew well, before COVID-19, the country was already 100,000 nurses short.
Great strides toward better health were unfolding, including DHEC’s national accreditation through the Public Health Accreditation Board, but South Carolina wasn’t faring as well as Dr. Traxler wanted it to with internal, statewide and national health and well-being assessments.
In its third consecutive year of researching all 50 U.S. states to determine its annual Community Well-Being Index, digital health company Sharecare and the Boston University School of Public Health recently placed South Carolina at No. 40 – identical to its rating in 2020 but four notches down from 2019.
Yet, with a love for the state and South Carolinians that runs as deep as her education and professional experience run wide, Dr. Traxler welcomed working with the team of experts at DHEC and with residents to turn around problems that didn’t happen overnight.
“What I love most about this job is the people I work with. They are an amazing team that shined during the pandemic,” Dr. Traxler said. “They are brilliant strategists and are helping people.”
Dr. Traxler also appreciates “the variety that comes with this job,” she said.
“I have eight meetings on the schedule today and they are all about different topics,” she added as an email rolled in letting her know that there was an issue, a “little bit of a crisis,” as she spoke.
The state is navigating the continuous opioid epidemic, an increase in mental and behavioral health issues and a growing disparity in quality and access to health care, Traxler confirmed. The leading causes of death in the state are cancer and chronic diseases such as heart disease and cardiovascular disease.
“South Carolina has its overwhelming challenges,” Dr. Traxler said. “My work here goes back to loving the state and the people in it. I want everyone to have better quality of life and length of life, and I want us to show the country what we are capable of.”
The “we” in her comment is not just DHEC’s team of experts and community partners – it’s also South Carolinians. To live longer and to have quality life, all residents need to step up, according to Dr. Traxler.
She and her family members are already walking the walk she talks.
“I went through the pandemic with a toddler,” Dr. Traxler said. “I’m not going to ask parents to do something that I’m not willing to do myself.”
When it came to the COVID vaccines, Dr. Traxler was eager for her 2-year-old daughter, Lucy, to have them.
“She was actually in clinical trials. She did the original series, and my husband and I were excited to discover she received the real, FDA-approved vaccine [rather than a placebo],” Dr. Traxler said.
“I give credit to my husband, Tony Roach, for staying well-informed and for trusting my recommendation,” she added.
Dr. Traxler’s advice to parents:
Preventative health care – do as much of it as you can. A big component of prevention is immunizations. “If you are worried about the risk, please know that you don’t want to face the realities that accompany polio and whooping cough.”
Go for wellness checks – Be sure that your children are on track for growth and development. “I’m not a pediatrician, but I trust every bit of my pediatrician’s advice and guidance. Find a provider you trust who can know your child.”
Take safety measures:
Sleeping infants – Infants should be on their back on a flat surface, with nothing in the crib until the child is a year old. “Lucy’s first item in the crib was ‘Puppy,’ which is a blanket with a dog’s head,” Dr. Traxler said. “She didn’t get it until the night of her first birthday. I think we are on our fourth one now.”
Car seats – Parents should be sure that car seats are installed properly – for grandparents’ cars, too. “I describe myself as a ‘reformed surgeon’ after doing a lot of trauma care,” Traxler explained. “The worst cases were the ones that involved children who were not fastened into safety seats correctly.”
Helmets – Parents should be sure their children wear helmets while on bikes, scooters and ATVs.
Swimming – Especially if children live near or play in water, they should learn how to swim.
Dr. Traxler’s advice to the general public:
Know CPR – This lifesaving skill has changed over the years. Mouth to mouth resuscitation is no longer used, for example. “We all need to know CPR – everybody, not just medical people,” said Dr. Traxler. “We all need the skills, and we have to be willing to use them without hesitation.”
Get up and move around – Couch potatoes and semi-couch potatoes: Get up and exercise on a regular basis – a half hour several days a week. “I’m a desk potato and sometimes I find it hard to do this,” Dr. Traxler admitted.
Ditch caffeine and go for water.
Forget the fad diet and look at calories instead.
For mental health, take advantage of options beyond the one-to-one sessions.
“Mental and behavioral health are huge concerns right now. And the issues look different for everyone,” Dr. Traxler explained. “But there are waiting lists for therapists, so people need to think about alternatives – zoom sessions, phone calls, support groups – so they don’t have to wait.”
Seek accurate information – “South Carolinians face misinformation every day that can jeopardize their health and well-being. Our state is not alone,” Dr. Traxler explained. “We have well-informed members of society in trusted roles – faith-based leaders, barbers, hairdressers and coaches who need to step in.”
“Accurate information is more powerful when it comes from your preacher or your barber more than me because there is a level of trust,” she added. “A person might not listen to the first person who offers accurate information or advice, but, after multiple people they trust tell them in a nonconfrontational way, they will probably hear it and heed it.”
It has taken centuries and many factors for South Carolina’s health, well-being and environmental concerns to rise to where they are today, Dr. Traxler confirmed.
“There is not an overnight fix,” she added. “But we will continue to meet the challenges and discover solutions, and with each stride we will be intentional. It is not good enough to improve overall if disparity increases, too.”