The emergency room is characterized by quick decisions and unexpected traumas and challenges. Unperturbed by the trials of the emergency room, Dr. Alexander Garza, B.S. ‘90, came to UMKC as a pre-med student intent on pursuing medical school and, ultimately, a career in emergency medicine. His aspirations to help others and make a difference have taken Garza on an interesting life journey which began as a paramedic and led him to a national role advising and protecting the health and security of the United States.
Though medicine was on his path, Garza was not ready to dive into medical school right after completing his undergraduate degree at UMKC.
“When I looked around, I wanted to do something that would be interesting, somewhat exciting, and something that would give me perspective that I never had before. The desire to do something different before medical school combined with my interest in emergency medicine led me to paramedic school,” he says.
After graduating from UMKC, Garza worked full-time at the Metropolitan Ambulance Service Trust as a paramedic. He worked there for two years before entering medical school.
Garza has picked his own path throughout his career which has allowed him to not just work in a variety of professions but to become an expert in a wide range of fields. Following medical school and residency, Garza worked as an emergency room physician. He served as an Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at the UMKC School of Medicine at Truman Medical Center. As a member of the United States Army, Garza served as both a battalion surgeon and as public health team chief during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Stationed in Tikrit, Iraq, Garza and his team were charged with assisting the Iraqis rebuild their healthcare education infrastructure which had suffered extensively due to many years of war with Iran, poor funding and embargoes. While performing his duties, Garza realized that local medical schools were lagging behind in updated medical materials and education. He helped start a book donation program which received 100,000 medical textbooks and journals. Garza was also instrumental in helping the Tikrit School of Medicine obtain its first internet connection.
In 2009, Garza was appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the United States Senate to serve as the assistant secretary and chief medical officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This position was created by the post-Hurricane-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 to better protect Americans in crisis. As the chief medical officer, Garza was the legislated health, medical and biodefense authority for the DHS. During his tenure, Garza served as the DHS lead in response to the H1N1 pandemic and also was the health lead for multiple disasters including the Fukishima Tsunami, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the Haiti earthquake. He is considered an expert in the fields of bioterrorism, weapons of mass destruction and health threats to national security.
After leaving his position with the DHS, Garza became the medical director and homeland security adviser for FirstWatch, a real-time public safety data analysis system used by 911, police, fire, EMS, emergency management and public health organizations in 35 states across the United States. The Situational Awareness System enables public health and safety organizations to monitor incidents in their system as events unfold, enabling quick responses.
Today, Garza is the associate dean for public health practice and acting chair of the department of environment and occupational health at the St. Louis University College of Public Health and Social Justice. He teaches classes, advises students, performs research and shares his knowledge and experience.
Reprinted from UMKC Alumni