Passing the Torch: Neurology Leadership Transition

March 10, 2023


Today, I will formally step down as Chair of Neurology at the University of Florida. I have now completed two four-year terms, and the opportunity to be chair has been the honor of a lifetime.

Why now? I believe, as George Washington memorably stated, that leadership roles should not be viewed as ‘lifetime appointments.’ Also, I am grateful for the opportunity of stepping down during a time of wonderful unity and accomplishment in our department. We have recently completed a forward-looking innovative strategic plan and I am excited to step aside and open opportunities for the next generation of leaders to carry out the vision.

Since 2015, our department has more than doubled in size. Together, we have created many new programs including neurocritical care, TBI, multiple sclerosis, headache and ALS. Existing programs like stroke, neuromuscular, epilepsy, behavior and movement disorders continue to expand and to thrive.

Together, we opened a free-standing Neuromedicine Hospital in 2017 and the Norman Fixel Institute for Neurological Diseases in 2019. We are currently the only ‘neuro’ program in the country with three state-of-the-art freestanding buildings (including the McKnight Brain Institute) to showcase our talent, excellence and commitment to neurological care and research.

The neurology residency training program has multiplied from 15 slots to 32, and the neurology fellowship programs have expanded from 10 slots to 25. We are creating the future generation of neurologists and neuroscientists.

Research funding has more than doubled in all areas since 2015 (NIH, Foundation, Clinical Trials), and together we have ~100 ongoing investigator-initiated or human clinical trials. Our footprint in basic research, according to The Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research, has experienced a meteoric rise and the number of new R, U and center of excellence grants has been astounding. In partnership with the Department of Neuroscience, we have achieved a Top 5 national ranking. We have also together raised philanthropic dollars, which have allowed us to support a bunch of new professorships in neurology, to offer more fellowship/graduate student opportunities, and to provide critical services for our patients not covered through the American healthcare system. Additionally, the new imaging center will allow us to advance both our care and research initiatives using MEG, PET and 3T MRI technologies.

Together, our commitment to the community has been unwavering, from the mobile neurology unit to direct outreach in churches and our underserved communities. I am proud that members of our department coalesced and created the college’s first Diversity Council. Together, we as a department have never hesitated in speaking and in amplifying our voices.

We as a department reimagined our administrative structure and we have worked tirelessly to improve communication, expand services and we always ask ‘why.’ We have together created a sense of purpose and meaning in all of our staff from administrative to environmental, from grants management to clinical trials. We are truly ‘One Neurology.’

Finally, I am most proud of the culture we have built together. The ‘house’ that the Department of Neurology has built has a deep-seated foundation. Our number one resource is our outstanding people. Together, our people remain steadfastly committed to improving culture through continuous process

enhancement. We ‘walk the walk’ as a department. I am proud to say that our department’s metric for success is ‘how many lives we can impact.’ Since 2015, I am proud to share that we have impacted tens of thousands of lives.

It is an honor for me to introduce the new Chair of Neurology, Dr. Michael Jaffee. I would like to share with you why I passionately believe he is the ideal next leader for our department.Jaffee

It is hard to imagine anyone who has lived a life of service to others in a more meaningful way than Dr. Michael Jaffee.

He is a loving husband and is a father to amazing twin daughters. The Jaffees are omnipresent in our community. As a family they volunteer everywhere, from Balance 180, to Tyler’s Hope for a Dystonia Cure, to the Alzheimer’s Association, to the Best Buddies Program.

On Christmas Day, you will find the Jaffees bringing cookies to the emergency room and to floor staff. You will encounter them ‘running by you as a family’ and lending a ‘hand’ in local charity races. The Jaffee family is special.

Dr. Jaffee has served his country with honor and he retired as a full colonel following 21 years of distinguished Air Force service. During wartime he led the largest medical hospital in Iraq, and he is the only neurologist I know who has l been ‘shot at.’ Lucky for us, he is difficult to bring down. Many of you know he recently survived a battle with cancer, and I have vivid memories of him ‘hooked’ to his chemotherapy while running meetings for our department.

Dr. Jaffee was a critical member of the Gray Team, whose accomplishments have been profiled by NPR, Wikipedia and others. He traveled to many bases and combat medical facilities in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Dr. Jaffee courageously and selflessly ‘stepped into’ the war zones to identify ways to better screen and to manage traumatic brain injury. Colonel Jaffee reported directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, and that is where I first met him in 2012 in Washington D.C.

Jaffee and his colleagues radically changed TBI protocols from symptom-based care to a system of incident-based care. Today, thanks to Jaffee and his colleagues, any service member involved in a ‘blast’ is screened and evaluated, regardless of presence or absence of TBI symptoms. Many of the Gray Team’s findings have changed the way we care for concussion today, inside and outside the military.

When Dr. Jaffee arrived UF, he immediately employed his skills as a ‘builder’ to unite all concussion care and research under one roof and he created the BRAIN Center. Thanks to Jaffee, UF is now considered one of the premier TBI and concussion programs in the country. Jaffee founded a pioneering concussion fellowship and has been training and shaping the next generation of neurologists in this relatively new field.

Jaffee’s accolades in neurology and neuroscience extend beyond his skills as a program ‘builder.’ He and Dr. David Vaillancourt together developed an R01 project in sleep medicine. Additionally, he and Dr. Carla Vandeweerd received a large multi-million dollar grant to study dementia.

Jaffee is boarded in neurology, boarded as a psychiatrist and has specialty boards in sleep medicine and in behavioral neurology. In addition to his skills in research, he is a gifted educator and has served in the roles of residency director and as a fellowship director. At one point in his career, he was credited with training a majority of active service neurologists in the U.S. Air Force.

These described experiences bolster my belief that Dr. Jaffee is the right person to lead you as the new chair of neurology.

Since he arrived at UF in 2016, he has served as a division chief (in two different divisions) and as Vice Chair for the department. He has been a key player in every major and in most minor decisions made at the leadership table. He is a gifted communicator, and he is a skilled listener.

Dr. Jaffee will bring the Department of Neurology a new vision for the future, and I hope you will join me in congratulating him on this well-deserved appointment. I ask you to get 100% behind this amazing person as he will need your help as he leads us into the next era for our department. He is the right person at the right time to lead our department’s new strategic vision.

Finally, if you are wondering, I am not going anywhere. UF is my home, and my family and I are committed to this community and to this department. I will be staying on as a ‘proud’ professor of neurology, and I will continue to write books, pen papers, teach trainees and attend all departmental events. I will continue in my role as Executive Director of the Fixel Institute Campus.

There is much work to be done in UF Neuro. You may have noticed that the timing of my announcement coincides with the appointment of our first Chief Operating Officer for the Fixel Institute Campus, Tara Hearns. I am overjoyed to work with her. Together, she and I will be focusing on ‘building out’ the new Fixel Institute Campus.

I pledge to you that I will always be a fully committed and a completely engaged gator neurologist and that I will continue to do everything I can to support the Department of Neurology. So, for one last time as your chair, I will say, ‘the patient is the sun and all of our missions should orbit and focus on the patient.’

Thank you for allowing me to serve you, and thank you for the honor of departing this job with joy in my heart and a smile on my face.

Michael S. Okun, M.D., Proud Professor, Department of Neurology, University of FloridaDr. Michael Okun, neurology, Fixel Institute