The People’s Doctor

Public health is paramount for Dr. Diane Weems

The disruptive course of the coronavirus pandemic took many of us by surprise, but Dr. Diane Weems saw it coming with eyes wide open. The former director of the Coastal Health District for the Georgia Department of Public Health spent three decades helping protect local communities from the threats of H1N1 (commonly called swine flu), Ebola virus, Zika virus and other infectious diseases, and she knew that a widespread epidemiological nightmare was not only possible, but inevitable.

“This is the kind of virus we’d always worried about,” Weems tells me, sighing, over a video interview during the shutdown. “In these days of global travel, it was going to end up here,” she says.

Though retired since 2016, Weems keeps up with scientific publications and preventative strategies, lauding the efforts of the medical community and others still working to contain the coronavirus spread and mitigate its impact.

“I’m just a citizen now, but once you’re in public health, you stay interested,” says Weems, who moved to Savannah in 1987. “Public health always has economic consequences, and watching it in real time, you realize how difficult it is to balance safety with security. I think our local leadership has done an outstanding job.”

While some public health professionals answer a clarion call to service, the Florida native didn’t declare an interest in medicine until she realized her original major wasn’t much of a life plan.

“I had enrolled in the music program at the University of Florida, and my mother asked ‘What are you going to do with that?’” she recalls. “I saw that making a career of piano was not as enjoyable as just playing as a passion. I’d taken some chemistry classes and volunteered at a hospital, and when I landed a job at a medical library, I found that I was deeply interested in medicine.”

She enrolled in UF’s medical school to train as a pediatrician alongside her husband-to-be, Dr. David Weems, who went on to become a radiation oncologist. When he accepted a position in Georgia, his wife decided that a regular schedule with the Department of Public Health served their young family better than the demands of a private practice and offered the opportunity to foster health for families in a different way. Over the decades, the couple earned the deep respect of the Savannah medical community, despite their unpopular football allegiance. “We are Gators for life, no apologies. Even my COVID mask is orange and blue!” says Weems, laughing.

Weems reached the district’s top public medical position while raising two children, something she credits in part to her husband. “I was able to have the career I had because I had a great partner. He always supported and understood the value of my work,” she says.

Such support and understanding became most clear during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, when during one of the busiest times in her career, Weems was diagnosed with breast cancer following a routine mammogram. “Although he was first and foremost my partner and husband, it was helpful he had the training he did,” Weems says. Fighting the disease also galvanized her commitment to public health. “After going through diagnosis, treatment and survivorship, I became an even more ardent supporter for public health programs that assist women with routine screening and breast health education,” she says.

Happily, Weems is cancer-free, and the former physician has remained occupied during pandemic life with yard work, making too many brownies, and cooing with her first grandchild over Zoom. “We still haven’t gotten to kiss him because they’re in Texas, but we can wait,” says the new grandmother. “We’re all sacrificing right now, but it pales in comparison to what other people are going through.”

This empathetic perspective encompasses Dr. Weems’ legacy, and she will be honored later this year with Planned Parenthood Southeast’s Howard Morrison Memorial Award, an accolade that recognizes a living person who has dedicated their life and work to improving health care for all.

“Since early in my career, we’ve talked about health care
and health disparity, and how that affects communities, not just individuals,” she says, circling back to the long-term impacts of coronavirus for folks living on the Georgia coast. “To achieve the highest level of public health, we have to make sure that everyone has full access to health care services and education.”

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