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VP Thrives in Ever-Changing Health Field

  • Dr. Dean Sienko (right), vice president for health programs, visits with Danladi Atinye, a volunteer community drug distributor in Plateau state, Nigeria. (Photo: The Carter Center/R. McDowall)

If you were in Lansing, Michigan, in early 1990, you might have caught Dean Sienko, M.D., M.S., on television. He could have been commenting on the death of a child or maybe an outbreak of influenza. As medical director of Ingham County, he was the voice of public health and high-profile deaths in a county that houses the state capitol, a university, and auto manufacturers.

But by the end of the year, he was half a world away, serving in Saudi Arabia as a flight surgeon in Operation Desert Storm. It was a turning point for Sienko and cemented a dual career path for the physician, currently the Carter Center’s vice president for health programs.

He had been a member of Army National Guard, joining after his third year of medical school. "I had an appreciation for being an American, and thought that was one way I could serve," he said. And although he had done his one weekend a month and two annual weeks of active duty for years, having his unit called up to serve in Saudi Arabia changed him.

"After that, I could appreciate serving in a combat zone," Sienko said. "And I wanted to continue to work with people who would make such a serious commitment and sacrifice." So he doubled-down on his military service and decided to make a career of it, switching to the Army Reserve so he could eventually lead units as a commanding officer. That is, of course, in addition to his full-time job as the chief medical officer in Ingham County.

Sienko knew he wanted to be doctor from childhood, and became interested in public health and preventive medicine. "I honestly didn’t know if that was a legitimate career path for a physician," he said. In his last year of medical school, he took a clerkship with the state epidemiologist in Wisconsin, against the counsel of his advisors, who wanted him to work in a hospital. He eventually joined the Epidemiological Intelligence Service, a two-year training program with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He mostly worked as a medical officer in Michigan during the program but welcomed a stint in Chad to address famine in 1985. The program also sent him to Guatemala to study a novel way to deliver measles vaccine.

In 2011, Sienko retired as medical director of Ingham County and moved his office a few miles away to Michigan State University as an associate dean. All the while, he continued to serve in the Army Reserve. In 2012, he got an offer from the army he couldn’t refuse: go on active duty as the commanding general of Army Public Health Command.

"I had a wonderful time," Sienko said. The army had units all over the globe, and the public health duties were diverse. He was responsible, for example, for ensuring the safety of the food supply for troops around the world and analyzing air, water, and soil samples from anywhere on earth the U.S. had troops for more than 30 days. The public health command fed Sienko’s desire for unpredictability and excitement. "I enjoyed having global responsibilities," he said. "Something was always happening somewhere."

When active duty ended and he retired from the military, he found the pace of academic life back at Michigan State less exciting and too removed from hands-on public health. He jumped at the chance to lead the Carter Center’s health programs, where he could move back into a global role and deal with the inevitable challenges of international work.

Since joining the Center in June 2016, Sienko's traveled regularly to see the health programs firsthand. "It's incredible to me, the responsibility we have and the work we do with a small but dedicated staff," he said. The Carter Center's health work would seem a perfect match for this former military officer used to taking the challenges as they come. "The world of public health is always very dynamic," he said. "And that has been an attraction to me throughout my career."

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