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Health director Branic leaves behind a safety net

BRADENTON — After serving for two decades, Dr. Gladys Branic retires today as director of the Manatee County Health Department.

“It will be hard to leave, but it is time,” said Branic, who sat in her office surrounded by dozens of awards, diplomas and photos from a long career in public health. “I am so excited. I would dearly love to become a motivational speaker, to do consulting work, to travel.”

Dr. Mark Yacht will take charge Friday as interim director during the search for Branic’s replacement, which must be approved by not only state health officials but also the county commission.

Retiring is bittersweet for Branic, whose legacy, community leaders say, is a stronger safety net protecting the community.

“I have enjoyed my tenure here,” Branic said. “I have enjoyed the positive working relationships with the county commissioners, with our public and private partnerships formed through Friends of Manatee County Health Department group, who have been so supportive of public health.”

Those partnerships, Branic says, have enabled the health department to integrate and expand preventative medicine.

When Branic joined the health department 20 years ago, access to prenatal care for poor women was so limited, Manatee County Rural Health clinics could see only a handful of the dozens of women who would line up at the door at 4 a.m. As a result, Manatee County had one the highest infant mortality rates in the state, on par with some of the poorest countries in the world.

Branic spearheaded a proposal to use part of the county’s indigent care fund to hire two obstetricians. She also successfully lobbied for funds to start an emergency room diversion program that directed the uninsured from hospitals to local clinics where they received routine care.

Eventually, those two programs became the cornerstones that helped rural health clinics, under the leadership of Mickey Presha, to expand into the largest health care network for low-income families in the southeastern United States.

Without Branic, none of that would have happened, says Fred Loveland, director of the county’s Community Services program. State funding was inadequate to meet the need, so Branic helped create a partnership between the county, health department and Rural Health to expand care.

“She allowed that to happen by diverting programs to Rural Health,” said Loveland. “A lesser person would not have given up that control.”

Branic counts those partnerships as one of her major achievements.

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who as a registered nurse was on staff at Manatee Memorial Hospital at that time, remembers the way things were before Branic joined the health department.

Under former director Dr. John Ambrusko, she recalls, the health department was in disarray.

“Nobody spoke to anybody,” Whitmore said. “The health department didn’t know what it was doing. Private doctors didn’t talk to the health department or to Rural Health. That didn’t make sense to Dr. Branic. It was her relationship with the hospital, with the county and with doctors that made change possible.”

Whitmore remembers meeting Branic during a tour of the hospital.

“I gave her an orientation at Manatee Memorial,” Whitmore said. “We go way back. I was so impressed with her. She was so well-trained, so educated and to have a young, black female as the head of our health department, that didn’t happen in those days. She has been a class act, very professional and represented Manatee County well.”

For Presha, Branic’s decision to retire is also bittersweet.

“You want to see a person go into the sunset and enjoy themselves, but you want to keep them because of the great working relationship you’ve got with them,” Presha said. “She will be sorely missed and very hard to replace.”

It was Branic who, along with Dr. Michael Bach and former county Commissioner Pat Glass, spearheaded a community coalition that helped Manatee County face the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was running rampant and unchecked.

“She fought hard to get an HIV clinic established,” Presha said. “She saw that people were not being treated fairly.”

Presha also credits Branic for starting the county’s Immunization Coalition, whose efforts have resulted in Manatee County having the highest childhood immunization rate in the state.

“Prevention, prevention, prevention, that’s what public health is all about,” said Branic, who plans to stay in Manatee County.

Her decision pleases Mary Ruiz, chief executive officer of Manatee Glens, the county’s hospital for the mentally ill and those suffering from behavioral problems and addictions.

“She came to us as a stranger with an incredible medical background and we were so lucky because she embraced this community and did everything to care of our health,” Ruiz said. “I am so glad she has decided to stay in the community because that means she has taken us into her heart and considers this home.”

Dr. Joe Soler, medical director for Pinnacle Urgent Care, has been a longtime member of the Friends group.

“Dr. Branic is a tireless worker who has done much for this community, despite the heavy load,” Soler said. “She exemplifies well what Mother Teresa said: ‘The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow, but do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.’ Dr. Branic’s gentle, caring and persuasive ways will be missed. Manatee County is proud of her.”

Branic says she got her strength from her mother, Lucy, who nearly single-handedly raised three children on a very meager income in the backwoods of South Carolina.

“My father was good man,” Branic said. “But he could neither read or write. He just made a little X.”

It was from her grandmother, who was part Indian, that Branic learned her first medical lessons. But it was her fourth-grade teacher, Anna G. Hudson, from whom Branic learned confidence.

“She told me I could do anything if I worked hard and that’s what I did,” Branic said. “I have worked hard all of my life, but I would not have come this far had it not been for the help of others who mentored me.”

Branic wants to share her story of how she rose from her meager beginnings to earn degrees from Alma College, the University of Chicago, the University of California at Los Angeles and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to become first a social worker, then a doctor and then a public health official.

She hopes to make sharing that story the focus of the next chapter of her life.

“I can make a difference,” she said. “I would love to do motivational speaking, especially for the young. It is very important to share my story, especially for those individuals who are economically challenged. Each of us is unique and we are born to share our talents with the world.

“For those individuals who have been exposed to adverse circumstances, to have struggled, I would like to give them a feeling of hope, to help them become resilient, so their talents are not lost,” she said passionately. “That is the greatest tragedy in the world, when people expire with their dreams unrealized. I hope my story can inspire them.”

Branic walked around her near empty office, looking at the many diplomas, photos and certificates still hanging on the walls.

She stopped and smiled at a large photo of a panel discussion on health care reform led by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. To her left sat Branic.

Nearby were photos of Branic with surgeon generals G. Everett Koop and David Satcher, and Govs. Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush. A scrapbook of photos from one of her many trips to Africa included shots of Branic with Coretta Scott King, who also attended a celebration for the president of Ghana.

But Branic stopped by a small certificate of appreciation signed by a group of Manatee County teenagers, young women who created a special award for the health department director, who was their mentor and model.

“This is the one that means the most to me.”

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