When Brannon Traxler agreed to step in as interim director of public health at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control in September of 2020, she thought the position would be temporary.
“I knew there was nowhere else I’d rather work than DHEC and no people I’d rather work with than the folks there,” she says. “I believe in our mission and the work that we do, so it was very easy to say yes — though I did, at the time, confirm that it was an interim position.”
She’d just spent the greater part of the year as chief medical officer for South Carolina’s COVID-19 response, which looked like 16- to 18-hour days of coordinating with groups all over the state — and next to no days off. “It was so fast paced,” Traxler says. “We just had to make the best decisions and guidance based on the info available at the time and keep going. You didn’t have time to stop and reflect.”
One good thing that did come out of the pandemic for Traxler was validation of her decision to go into public health. The pandemic “reinforced that this is where I’m supposed to be: this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Ever since she was 8 years old, Traxler wanted to be a doctor. The Greenville native went through school seeking out science classes and extracurricular opportunities in medicine, like earning her EMT certification and volunteering at local hospitals. She graduated from Clemson with a degree in microbiology and attended medical school at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine before completing a residency in general surgery.
Traxler spent years as a general surgeon before she came to terms with the realization that she wanted to make a bigger impact.
“It had been such a hard decision to walk away from all of the training that I had done, but it was so the right one,” she says. “I remember my husband said just a couple of months into my job at DHEC, ‘It’s so good to see you relaxed and smiling and excited about work.’”
Traxler started working at DHEC in its division of acute disease epidemiology after taking a year off to get her master’s in public health. In April of 2021, after serving as chief medical officer and interim director, she was announced as DHEC’s next director of public health, putting her in charge of more than 2,000 state employees and 74 sites ranging in specialties and services from clinical care and family planning to immunizations, chronic disease and injury prevention, laboratory research, and public health preparedness.
“I am a native South Carolinian,” Traxler says. “I’m aware of the health care system here. I know some of the biggest challenges and struggles that South Carolina and South Carolinians face. Those are the things I want to work to improve.”