September 11, 2020 – a date Brannon Traxler ‘00 will never forget. On that day, as the nation reflected on one historical moment, Brannon received a phone call asking her to step into another. COVID-19 was now a global pandemic, and, after the call, Brannon found herself at the helm of South Carolina’s statewide response serving as the interim Director of Public Health for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC).
Uniquely qualified with both her medical (MD) and public health degrees (MPH), Brannon’s prior role was that of Chief Medical Officer where she was tasked with analyzing the state’s emergency preparedness from a medical standpoint. One of the first to raise a red flag in the department in early January, Brannon had witnessed the original “gang of 5” who were working on the virus grow to a team of around 2000 people. As Director, she would now lead those 2,000 public health employees and provide strategic direction for the department which encompasses 78 public health service sites located across the state.
As if that didn’t sound daunting enough, she would be undertaking this challenge while raising her first child, Lucy -- a newborn at the time. At the height of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Brannon averaged around 3-4 hours of sleep per night. She lived by the “Semper Gumby” motto of always being flexible and learned how to stay calm and make decisions in the heat of the moment. When asked how she persevered over the past few years, her answer was simple, “I believe in the work and the people at the DHEC.”
At its core, the public health field does its work behind the scenes. According to the American Public Health Association, “while a doctor treats people who are sick, those of us working in public health try to prevent people from getting sick or injured in the first place.” As a result, much of their work goes unnoticed and unpublicized.
“If you don’t see your public health officials on the television, it’s a very good thing,” Brannon says, perfectly happy to stay out of the limelight.
Now that the world has returned to some semblance of normalcy, Brannon is far from resting on her laurels. Her days are filled with more common though no less serious health issues. For instance, Brannon receives multiple calls throughout the week regarding animals with rabies. She also travels across the country to meet with other state leaders to discuss and inform national public health interests.
Despite her busy schedule, Brannon feels she is exactly where she was meant to be. Her passions for medicine and public health developed at a young age, and she credits her parents and CCES for developing and fostering these interests during high school. With the guidance of her teachers, she doubled up on her science classes, and her senior project allowed her to work in the hospital and conduct research there. A go-getter, Brannon also took an EMT class at Greenville Tech during her senior year, allowing her to become a certified EMT at the ripe old age of 18.
A South Carolinian through and through, Brannon then graduated from Clemson University with a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and headed off shortly thereafter to the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. She chose USC, because it allowed her to complete her rotations in Greenville and play a role in developing some of the curriculum given its early stages as a medical school. Deciding upon general surgery, Brannon remained in South Carolina (with the exception of one year spent in Atlanta for a fellowship) and started her career at a private practice in Spartanburg. Though she eventually pivoted to public health in 2016, she attributes her ability to make high-stake decisions to her time as a general surgeon. Her medical background gives her a unique perspective in the world of public health, and she is grateful for her time spent in the operating room.
Unsurprisingly, what started as an interim position is now permanent, and Brannon plans on serving at the SCDHEC until the day she retires. “South Carolina is home and it’s a phenomenal state. I want to be part of its improvement, especially as it pertains to the health of South Carolinians.” In the long-term, she hopes to decrease health disparities across the state, and given her tenacity and commitment, there is no doubt that she will succeed.
While she may not have ended up exactly where she first imagined she would be in terms of her career, she is sure that her 14-year-old self would be happy. “She might be surprised that I’m not in clinical work, but I know she would be pleased,” she says. “She would be proud that I am making a difference.”