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Fathers Focus on Health: CDC staff share personal stories

Father's Day is the perfect time to say I love you to dads by reminding them to protect their own health, like they do their families. CDC celebrates men's health by featuring stories from five CDC employees about how their dads influenced their approach to health and safety. The stories present important life lessons about safety, fitness, nutrition, smoking and tobacco use and highlight some protective factors that our participants' fathers used to help their children make healthy lifestyle choices, resist risky behaviors and succeed in school.

The men who share their stories are also all fathers, and they discuss what types of examples they try to set and the lessons about health and safety that they hope to leave with their children. CDC data and research supports the fact that parents and primary caregivers have a powerful impact on a child's attitudes and approaches to health and safety, as they begin to make their own choices in adolescents and later into adulthood.

Ali S. Khan

Photo: Haji Gulab Deen Khan & his grandson

Haji Gulab Deen Khan & his grandson

Benjamin Franklin's quote "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" was written in a letter to his local newspaper about fire safety. Haji Gulab Deen Khan, father of five, couldn't have been worried as much about safety when he drove his children 140 kilometers each way on a one lane highway in rural Pakistan, as he was about ensuring they received their preventive vaccines. Dr. Ali Khan, the eldest of these children, was born and bred in Brooklyn, NY but lived for four years in Pakistan with his father and family. Dr. Khan remembers his father's adamancy, despite the perilous journey, that he "do this for his children."

"Dad was a big proponent for immunization in our local community. He also assisted the health department to eventually help make vaccines locally available to the population and to bring national programs in line with WHO standards." But Mr. Khan wasn't just resolute in his commitment to prevention through immunization practices. Dr. Khan's dad's emphasis on proper hand-washing, water purification and haircuts were also particularly memorable… "I'll never forget trips to the barber with my dad who would inspect the blades to see if they were new and ask if the towels were clean."

When asked if he was inspired into public health by his clinician father, Dr. Khan is quick to correct that his father was "not a clinician at all." Mr. Khan couldn't have been more than 15 when he left pre-war India on a freighter. "He must have lied about his age to be able to work as a crew member, but he eventually made his way to the United States where he did odd jobs, even shoveling coal, but yes, I was totally inspired into public health by my father. In fact, he inspired my life in every way."

Haji Gulab Deen Khan went from being a penniless share cropper to a successful businessman. He provided stability and brought many other types of opportunities to his family and community. He educated himself broadly and spoke several languages. This Father's Day, Dr. Khan honors his father's life (1927 - 2013) and the passion with which he lived it.

U.S. Assistant Surgeon General Ali S. Khan (RET), MD, MPH officially began his career in public health 23 years ago when he joined CDC as an epidemic intelligence officer. He knows, however, his real schooling in population health began 40 years ago when he took a trip down a treacherous, Pakistani road with his father in search of vaccines for his younger siblings. Currently, Dr. Khan serves as director of CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.
 

Jason Bonander

Photo: Jason Bonander

Jason Bonander

If his talent for technology wasn't inspired by his dad, perhaps his passions for public health and peas were. Jason, Director of the Office of Informatics and Information Resources Management within NCCDPHP, remembers his father's work in California as an early, vocal advocate for young Parkinson's patients. Alan (Jason's Dad) hadn't always been so mindful of his own health, a computer programmer who spent long hours working and many years smoking was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in his late 30s. Parkinson's, a neurodegenerative disease, is often characterized by uncontrollable tremors. As his body increasingly betrayed him, "Dad's mind did a 180 degree turn," as he remained focused on empowering young Parkinson's patients in California to become more involved in their health and care options until his sudden death at 56. "That night, his Parkinson's symptoms were bad and it triggered the severe asthma he had from smoking. He collapsed from the asthma attack and died."

Jason describes the visceral reaction to cigarette smoke he has to this day, "it takes me back to six year's old and the horrible smell in our house." A conversation about health and wellness was never a topic at dinner in Jason's childhood home. Jason's parents were Midwesterners and "the only vegetable served at home was corn." Jason laughs about his father's corn joke and recalls his dad's word for Asparagus and feelings towards vegetables in general, "ASSpargrass, or peas or anything else green for that matter, never made it to our dinner table."

What is powerful about Jason's six year old memory is its inverse or positive effect on his own approach to health, and what by example, he hopes to teach his now six year old son, Soren. Soren, it seems, is an avid nutritional facts reader from food boxes and will debate with his dad, an eleven year public health veteran, about which food choice is the healthier one. Conversations about health and wellness are not a rarity in the Bonander home and fresh produce is not scarce on the dinner table. Jason says he is the cook of the family, and he strives to serve something green at every meal. This Father's Day he's grateful for his healthy family and hopes that Soren will continue to mind his peas and his parents.

Jason Bonander, MA, is the Director of the Office of Informatics and Information Resources Management within the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. He has worked in public health at CDC for 11 years.
 

Peter Briss

Father's day image

Peter Briss, MD, MPH, CAPT USPHS

By today's standards, Elemer Briss is a modern man - a mathematician, computer programmer, multi-linguist, husband and father who is always reading and learning something new. Fortunately, for Dr. Peter Briss, his dad, now 83, is also a fine cook who "taught his boys to know their way around a kitchen." Elemer Briss was a rarity for his time and fiercely independent. He practiced Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants long before it was a coined phrase by journalist and self-proclaimed foodie intellectual, Michael Pollan.

Dr. Briss describes the benefits of growing up and eating food prepared at home by his father, "the nutritional value it was to us as growing boys is perhaps obvious, but there were other benefits that I began to appreciate more when I became a father myself." Dr. Briss and his wife, Sue, have two girls, Erin and Laura, and their immediate and extended families continue to share time and bond around the preparation of good food, just as he experienced in his childhood home.

It is not lost on Dr. Briss, a pioneer of the Million Hearts initiative, that mealtime can nourish the body and the family unit, both key factors for maintaining healthy, happy hearts. Dr. Briss has worked at CDC for 23 years and accredits his long career and passion for public health to his progressive dad's example and influence. "I have had many opportunities for learning and growth in public health. I have practiced medicine, worked in the areas of research and science and public health policy. I get that desire to learn from dad who is always acquiring new knowledge."

This Father's Day, Dr. Briss honors his dad for all the time and meals he made for his family. His dad's tomato salad is still his favorite to prepare and share.

Peter Briss, MD, MPH, CAPT USPHS is the Medical Director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. He has worked in public health at CDC for 23 years.
 

Richard Allen

Photo: Richard & Katherine Allen

Richard & Katherine Allen

Rich Allen was a child of the late fifties and sixties. He was never told to fasten his seatbelt in a car or to wear a helmet while riding his bike. "The cars of the day did not even come with seat belts. You just didn't hear about those life-saving safety measures when I was growing up," but he knew a little more with his oldest children Kyle (22) and Kerrin (19) and now a lot more with his daughter, Katherine, aged 5.

In 1995, a helmet law was passed in Virginia Beach where Rich and his wife, Delores, were living. The law required children under 14 to wear helmets, so Kyle and Kerrin grew up wearing them while biking. Today, Rich is teaching "safety first" to the new Allen generation; Not only is his youngest wearing helmets and seatbelts, but Rich is passing on the love and the lessons his dad taught him about being safe in and around the water during recreational activities.

Rich and his dad spent a lot of time around the water - body surfing, swimming, fishing and crabbing. "The ocean does and always will remind me of my father, and during my navy deployments… being at sea just produced such warm memories of dad." Whether they were enjoying our nation's oceans, rivers, lakes or tributaries, Rich said his father required them to "always respect the water."

The sixties was also a time when you didn't see many people wearing life jackets, but Rich's dad insisted on safe practices, like learning to swim and having a buddy to hold onto while reeling in a fish or pulling up crab nets. Today, Rich still shares all the beauty and fun the water offers with his family. He requires Katherine to wear a life jacket, and he channels his father's wisdom about safety during water sports and recreation when he tells her to "respect the water's goodness, as well as its ability to render harm."

Rich's dad was wise in many ways and patient. "As much as dad tried to educate me, I ignored it. He never drank or smoked. I, on the other hand, was the complete opposite." Until he blinked and through the years that seemed like minutes and the eyes of his own child, Rich realized he was a lot like his truck driving dad. Rich celebrates ten years tobacco-free and 28 years alcohol-free this year, and this Father's Day, he thanks his dad for once saving his life when he was choking on piece of candy and for all the countless times his water safety messages and practices diverted him from harm's way.

Richard Allen, BS, ICPS is a Health Education Specialist and has been working in public health in CDC's Office on Smoking and Health for six years.
 

Rodney Murray

Photo: Reuben Murray

Reuben Murray

Mr. Reuben Murray was not shy with his emotions. He often said "I love you" to his family, but when it came to his children and life's important lessons, it was the acts of love and compassion that made the biggest impression on his son, Rodney Murray, CDC Deputy Director of ITSO. "I learned first and foremost that I had choices in life, and Dad taught me to really think before I set down a particular path because the consequence could be irreversible." Rodney saw his grandparents suffer from ill health from a combination of environmental factors and lifestyle choices, like too much rich food. His father was an only child and took care of them in every way, including their medical needs.

Mr. Murray also took care of the medical needs of children in the community. Many of Rodney's peers did not have access to a doctor's care and Rodney's dad had an understanding with his mother's employer, a local doctor that he could bring the children to him for treatment. "My dad was a father figure to many children, not just his own." His passing at the early age of 59 was a huge loss for his family and during a time of grief, Rodney learned from neighbors just how many lives his dad had touched.

There were other actions on the part of his father that Rodney would not be privy to until many years later, like the time Rodney got into some minor trouble at school and was expelled for a day at the request of his dad. Rodney was always a good student so the punishment seemed harsh for the "crime," but Rodney was not aware that the principal had called his father. The next morning at 5:30 AM, Rodney's dad woke him and showed him to the lawnmower that was full of gas. Without a word spoken about the incident at school, Rodney spent the entire day mowing all the grass in the neighborhood. His father, who had taken the day off work, moved from tree to tree to take shade and watch over this wayward son. The time and attention from his dad and the very long, hot Texas day made a lasting impression, and Rodney couldn't wait to return to school and behave.

The last words ever not spoken to Rodney were written in a letter his dad had prepared in the event of his passing. "It was like he knew," recalls Rodney. The letter and his father's attention were again focused on the health and wellbeing of others, never mentioning his own fear, if he had any, or needs. "Dad wanted to make sure we knew all he had available to take care of mom and how to access it." Mr. Murray had his own preparedness plan in place for Rodney and his brother to implement should he not survive his by-pass surgery, which he did survive. However, eight days later, Rodney's dad died unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism. The magnitude of the letter, the love shown in every detail will never leave Rodney. It was the ultimate act of a Father's love because "we knew everything we had to do."

This Father's Day, Rodney honors his dad for empowering him with an awareness of his own choices and how they impact others. He's grateful his dad made time for his family, his community and the details that mattered most.

Rodney Murray, BS is the Deputy Director of ITSO. He has worked to advance IT Infrastructure both domestically and internationally in support of the CDC public health mission for 23 years.
 

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