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  • Cullen accepts stethoscope from former classmate

    Theresa Cullen always enjoyed reconnecting with her med school classmate Bob England. The two occasionally crossed paths over the course of their respective careers in public health – with her arcing toward federal service and academics, while his trajectory took him to local programs and agencies. So, it came as a nice surprise in late January 2020 when Cullen received an email from England encouraging her to apply for his current job. 

    "I didn't believe him at first. I asked, 'If it's so great, why are you leaving then?' He explained how he'd stayed longer than the six months that he had planned," Cullen said.

    Being hired amid the pandemic, the process for Cullen included a quintessential 2020 workplace experience: a video conference, with her appearing from Indianapolis and England and Board of Health Chair Paul Horwitz, among others, in Tucson.

    Cullen was in Tucson for a final in-person interview in mid-April and began working part-time for the County in early May, serving as Vice Chair of the County’s Back To Business Task Force, charged with helping determine the criteria, rules and guidance for reopening the local economy while accounting for the presence of the virus. She took over officially as health director June 1.

    Cullen calls England's assistance with her transition "invaluable. "Actually, I thanked Francisco [Garcia] for letting Bob help me transition and lead me because I would no way, no how be as up to speed as I am without him. And I still have a lot more to learn," she said.
    Dr. Terry Cullen
    The gradual transition helped Cullen get her bearings and allowed her to familiarize her with the organization of the health department and the county. She also got a primer on the local emergency response structure. A 25-year veteran of the U.S. Public Health Service's Commissioned Corps who retired as a Rear Admiral and Assistant U.S. Surgeon General, Cullen comes to Pima County with a wealth of experience in public health administration and managing infectious disease outbreaks. During the Ebola crises of 2014 and 2015 she volunteered to establish and operate a maternity Ebola Unit in the African nation of Sierra Leone with the group Partners in Health.

    "I've stood up emergency operations centers before. The EOC here is amazing, it's one of the best facilities of its kind that I've ever seen," she said. "We're well positioned to deal with major emergencies in this community."

    Modern facilities such as the EOC, Abrams Public Health Center and the Behavioral Health Pavilion helped sell Cullen on becoming health director but discovering her personal philosophy fit well with the health department's existing culture sealed the deal.

    "The major part of the attraction for me was the staff's commitment to health equity. It's why I came here. What struck me the most about being here was that everyone here talked about that idea. Bob said to me 'I've worked at other departments this place is unique and what makes it unique is that health equity is just part of the DNA here and part of the community.' People want that. They want to strive to achieve equity," she said.

    She plans to consult with England "more than occasionally" after he heads back to Phoenix.

    "Bob is brilliant, a wealth of information on public health. Who else would I want to learn from? He's now a mentor, as well as a colleague and a dear friend. I don't want to fall into quicksand if I don't have to," she said. "I'm astute politically at the federal level. Bob's perspective of local issues and where to push and where not to push will be important to me."

    Cullen said returning to Southern Arizona, takes her back to the start of her career with the Indian Health Service and to serving with England in the UA College of Medicine's Commitment to Underserved People (CUP) program where they first discovered a shared commitment to the idea of health equity.

    "It allowed us to realize our vision of what we wanted to do in the world and share a commonality with other members of our cohort," Cullen said. "Bob's a special guy; only a few of the people we went to med school with are still working in the public arena . But I believe that Bob will continue to provide his insights, wisdom and energy to help achieve health equity."
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