His own health failing, Dr. Rice Leach, Lexington’s commissioner of health, was honored Monday night with the 2016 Public Health Hero award, which the Lexington-Fayette County Board of Health plans to rename in his honor.
“When your peers recognize you, there’s nothing like it,” Leach told the crowd via Skype. “And when your peers you love recognize you, it’s got to be the best.”
Mayor Jim Gray issued a statement thanking Leach for his service to the city and its citizens.
“He truly is a Public Health Hero because he has made Lexington citizens healthier and given them better access to the health care services they need,” Gray said.
The award, in its 13th year, usually is given in April as part of National Public Health Awareness Week, but it was presented Monday because of Leach’s medical condition.
Leach, 75, sent an email to the health department’s staff two weeks ago, updating them about his lymphoma and telling them he would not be back to work. He said palliative care and hospice would be “not too far in the future.”
“I think that most of you know I have loved working here, love our mission and love all of you. If the rest of the country could work like we do, many of our problems would be easier to manage,” he wrote. “I will miss seeing you every day and I will really miss the hugs.”
Leach’s five-year tenure as Lexington’s health commissioner was preceded by decades of work in the public health field that included a stint as chief of staff to the U.S. Surgeon General, and international work in Guatemala, Bolivia and Panama.
He was Kentucky commissioner of public health from 1992 to 2004; from 2004 to 2010 he was medical director and executive director of the health department’s primary care center.
Health department board members praised Leach, and employees wiped away tears during the award presentation.
Board member Kacy Allen-Bryant’s read a statement honoring Leach and made the motion to change the name of the award to the Dr. Rice C. Leach Public Health Hero Award “so future generations will know what a true public health superhero is.”
Lois Davis, a nurse at the health department, said in an interview that Leach “is an icon in public health” but also the kind of boss employees love.
“If a staff member makes a mistake, he’s got your back,” she said. “He will never throw you under the bus.”
“Dr. Leach provided excellent leadership and left everyone here well prepared to carry on the mission of the health department,” Dr. Jackie Matar, a member of the board, said in a statement. “He consistently taught us to remember the lessons of the past, consider the needs of the present and plan for the future. While he will be sorely missed, he left us the gift of preparedness.”