Jerome Adams: On Compassion

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Jerome Adams, MD served as the the 20th surgeon general of the United States. He is an alumnus of the 2015 Young Leaders Conference.

Back in 2015 while running the Indiana State Department of Health, I was thrust into the National spotlight by the largest HIV outbreak ever caused by injection drug use. It was occurring not in an urban setting, but in the rural, mostly white town of Austin, Indiana. We knew the science dictated the opening of a syringe service program (SSP), but needle exchanges were illegal in the state at the time. Academics from the east coast to the west wanted me to use my authority to force the opening of an SSP in the town. But I knew that if a young black man from Maryland tried to push such a controversial intervention on that small town, the people would rebel. The local police chief would’ve set up outside the needle exchange and searched people coming in and out (he told me as much)- and that would’ve been the end of it. Instead, I left my desk in Indianapolis, drove the two hours back and forth to Scott County, and met with the community. I visited the hospital and health department, but also the church, school, and the police station.  I broke bread with the community, walked the streets with them, and I prayed with them. I showed them I didn’t want to judge them- I wanted to help them. And those community members came to embrace me, and to eventually support the needle exchange. Working together, we saw new HIV cases plummet from 150 in 2015 to 2 in the last year. That experience shaped me as leader. My number one reflection on leadership now is that compassion is key to getting others to follow your lead-people need to know you care, before they care what you know.  

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