Honoring Service: The Sammies

Deriding government bureaucrats seems to be a popular pasttime among certain politicians and talk-radio hosts, so it’s nice every so often to remind ourselves about the important and valuable work our civil servants do. An article by Patricia Sullivan in the Washington Post provides a glimpse into the world of one longtime federal-government employee who’s made a difference for public health. Lawrence Deyton is currently director of the Food and Drug Aministration’s Center for Tobacco Products, and he also spent many years working on clinical trials of HIV drugs and a range of veterans health issues.

Deyton is in the spotlight because he’s been nominated for a Career Achievement Medal, one of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals given by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. The “Sammies” are known as “the Academy Awards of government workers,” Sullivan reports. Here are the short descriptions of the five Career Achievement Medal finalists:

Alfonso Batres
Position: Chief Officer, Readjustment Counseling Service
Agency: Veterans Health Administration
Location: Washington, D.C.
Achievement: Devoted his career to building a national network of small, community-based centers where veterans traumatized by combat obtain counseling, job assistance, medical referrals and other services.

Neal B. Brown
Position: Chief, Community Support Programs Branch
Agency: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Location: Rockville, Maryland
Achievement: Helped transform mental health care in the U.S., moving people out of institutions and into community-based care, and giving mental health consumers and their families a voice in treatment options.

Sharon W. Bryson
Position: Deputy Director, Office of Communications
Agency: National Transportation Safety Board
Location: Washington, D.C.
Achievement: Provides assistance and comfort to traumatized survivors and family members of those killed in aircraft accidents and other transportation disasters.

Lawrence Deyton
Position: Director, Center for Tobacco Products
Agency: Food and Drug Administration
Location: Rockville, Maryland
Achievement: Spent three decades improving public health and treating veterans, pioneering ways to fight AIDS, hepatitis C and emerging health threats, and now leading the effort to reduce tobacco-related disease and death.

Matthew J. Friedman
Position: Executive Director, National Center for PTSD
Agency: Department of Veterans Affairs
Location: White River Junction, Vermont
Achievement: A pioneer in the field of traumatic stress disorders, who studied, treated and advocated for people psychologically affected by war or other tragedies.

Click through to the Medal website to read longer descriptions of these finalists, or to see finalists in the other seven categories.

Here’s Sullivan’s description of Deyton’s impressive career:

Deyton has spent his career trying to improve public health. Before working on tobacco, he was deeply involved in the campaign against AIDS as a leader of more than 200 National Institutes of Health-funded clinical trials of HIV therapies in the late 1980s and the 1990s. He diversified the participants in the trials, bringing in thousands of new patients.

“I cannot say how cutting-edge his approach was at the time,” Margaret A. Hamburg, the FDA commissioner, said in nominating Deyton for the award. “It brought research to communities that needed it. He understood the disconnect between patients and research, and he found a new way to do testing and develop products.”

In 1998, he became director of HIV/AIDS treatment programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, at the time the nation’s largest provider of care for HIV-
infected patients. Four years later, he became director of a broader public health group within VA that oversaw programs aimed at hepatitis C, bioterrorism, possible flu pandemic and tobacco use, as well as HIV. He became VA’s chief health officer in 2006.

As the first employee of the FDA’s new Center for Tobacco Products, he leads the nationwide effort to reduce tobacco-related disease, which still causes 443,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smokers die, on average, 14 years earlier than nonsmokers.

“I have huge respect for smokers who are addicted, especially those trying to quit,” said Deyton, who has been at his current job for two years. “I don’t damn them. I don’t put them down. Nicotine is truly one of the most addictive products on the planet . . . as addictive as heroin and cocaine. So make no mistake: [Quitting] is not just a matter of will.”

As a taxpayer, this is the kind of work I’m glad to be supporting. Thanks to Lawrence Deyton and the many other hardworking career government employees who are working hard year after year to improve public health!

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