When they returned to the United States in 2001 after several years abroad, Joseph B. McCormick, MD, and his wife, Susan Fisher-Hoch, MD, could have written their own ticket.
At the height of national bioterrorism concerns, they had just returned from global careers in epidemiology that included investigating deadly diseases in developing countries and building an ultra-secure bioresearch laboratory in France.
“We thought a lot about it and decided, ‘Instead of going back to a big university, let’s think about going to a community where we can really make a difference,’” McCormick remembers.
Two decades later, they are celebrating the 20th anniversary of UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville, which they helped found. McCormick, currently the James H. Steele, DVM, Professor, served as the school’s first dean, while Fisher-Hoch, Professor of Epidemiology, Human Genetics, and Environmental Sciences, established herself as a driving force in its ongoing community health clinical research.
Dedicated to advancing health around Brownsville and the surrounding Rio Grande Valley, the couple also share a deep commitment to their students—a commitment reflected in the Many Faces. One Mission. campaign. With a focus on training the next generation of health professionals, the campaign will provide vital resources to ensure that today’s students can follow in the footsteps of public health leaders like McCormick and Fisher-Hoch.
In November 2020, the couple made a pledge to establish the Joe McCormick and Sue Fisher-Hoch Public Health Scholarship Endowment, which will help students at the Brownsville campus gain greater knowledge and expertise in public health.
“It’s our commitment to the students we love and a community that’s been really good to us,” McCormick says.
During their early days in Brownsville, they spent much of their time trying to understand the scope of the public health challenges facing the area—one of the poorest in the nation with high rates of obesity, diabetes, liver cancer, and other chronic diseases.
McCormick recalls asking a nurse at a local hospital to name the most common surgery the hospital performed, and without hesitation she answered revision of kidney shunts—a procedure required to conduct regular kidney dialysis often caused by high blood pressure and/or diabetes.
“I was shocked,” McCormick says. “Imagine how many people have to be on dialysis for that to be the most common thing, and I knew it was just the tip of the iceberg.”
He and Fisher-Hoch helped the Brownsville campus develop a close relationship with local government, clinics, and hospitals to collaborate on public health initiatives, and they launched a robust research program focused not only on obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases but also prevalent challenges like depression and anxiety.
They trained a highly skilled team of committed workers from the community to recruit and gather data from residents, assessing the prevalence and severity of disease while promoting positive lifestyle interventions. Fisher-Hoch founded and directs the Cameron County Hispanic Cohort, a research program following 5,000 residents of Mexican descent to gather data on health disparities. They worked with Valley Baptist Hospital in Brownsville to establish the first clinical research unit in the county from which the cohort participants are recruited.
“This helped a lot in understanding and tracking COVID-19,” she says. “Since we have the cohort’s long-term biological data in our archive, as individuals are infected, we can gain a much clearer picture of the changes it causes.”
The pandemic has emphasized the need for more public health experts in hard-hit communities like Brownsville. The campus had already started an accelerated master’s program that offers a more direct route for capable students, many of whom come from low-income families and may struggle with traditional paths to graduate education. McCormick also launched the first integrated MD/MPH program with UTHealth San Antonio over 15 years ago—now in eight medical schools throughout Texas. That program has now been implemented by The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.
McCormick and Fisher-Hoch see their newly established scholarship as a continuation of the campus’s educational efforts and part of their broader dedication to public health, which they intend to pursue as integral members of the school’s faculty for as long as possible.
“We had expected to retire, but we enjoy our work with the students and faculty here too much for that,” he says. “There’s nothing else we would rather do.”