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Born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1975, Burke Harris immigrated to the US at age 4. After receiving degrees from UC-Berkeley, UC-Davis, Harvard, and Stanford, Burke Harris began practicing medicine in San Francisco. She quickly focused on pediatrics and traumatic experiences and became of the leading doctors on toxic stress and toxic stress treatment. In the early 2010’s, she led the Adverse Childhood Experiences project in the city, working with many medical and governmental higher-ups including then District Attorney Kamala Harris.
She soon became the Chief Executive for the Center of Youth Wellness in San Francisco, a position she held until February of 2019 when Governor Gavin Newsom chose her to become California’s first Surgeon General. While Newsom had asked her to help tackle the state’s health problems, with a focus on combating the root causes of serious health conditions, Burke Harris tended to avoid the public eye and initially largely focused on young Californians. In particular, she worked on screening and treating them for adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress, as well as health equity.
However, after the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in early 2020, Burke Harris was among California’s governmental leaders in responding to it, playing a large role in correcting vaccine and treatment inequities. A the same time, she was seen by many as ineffective or ‘do-nothing’ for not pushing past pediatric, trauma, or COVID-19 treatments during her tenure.
“She rarely ventured beyond her wheelhouse,” said a San Francisco physician who wished to remain anonymous who had dealt with the Office of Surgeon General during the Pandemic. “The office of Surgeon General is to cover all Californians, but she never really did it and was always more focused on her work with kids and trauma. She didn’t really venture out much until COVID hit either. She went after the root causes of health conditions like Newsom asked, granted, but she did not like to leave that comfort zone.”
Despite criticism of her three-year tenure, lawmakers had nothing but praise for Burke Harris on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Dr. Burke Harris’ expertise and leadership in championing equity, mental health and early childhood development have been instrumental in advancing the health and well-being of Californians,” noted Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday. “I thank her for the impactful initiatives and frameworks she has put in place as California’s first-ever Surgeon General, and we’ll continue this important work to create healthier communities across the state.”
California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly added that Burke Harris had “disrupted persistent stubborn health inequities and disparities during the pandemic. The important work of the office of the California surgeon general is only beginning, and I am grateful to Nadine for her vision and contributions and for setting us on this path.”
California’s first Surgeon General
Burke Harris noted in a statement on Wednesday that while she was proud to have been Surgeon General, the pressures of responding to the pandemic weighed on her and that she decided to want to care more for herself and her family after leaving the position later this month.
“Serving as the surgeon general during the greatest public crisis in a century has been the experience of a lifetime,” said Burke Harris. “I am incredibly proud to have been part of a team that, together, worked tirelessly to protect the health and well-being of all Californians. Our efforts ensured that California had the lowest cumulative mortality rate among patients with COVID-19 of any large state.
“I have always said, self-care isn’t selfish. That isn’t just something I say. They are words that I live by. As I transition out of this role and focus on prioritizing care for myself and my family, I will never stop supporting efforts to improve the health and well-being of our communities.”
Burke Harris will continue to serve as Surgeon General until February 11th. Chief Health Officer Dr. Devika Bhushan will serve as acting Surgeon General until Governor Newsom appoints a new doctor to that position. As of Wednesday, there has been no announcement on who will become the second Surgeon General of California.
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