Eugene A. Stead Jr. Award of Achievement
Rear Adm. Epifanio “Epi” Elizondo, PhD, PA-C, DFAAPA
Retired Rear Adm. Epifanio “Epi” Elizondo, PhD, PA-C, DFAAPA, would not use the word “destiny” to describe how he found his career path. He considers “luck” to be the more appropriate term.
The recipient of the 2017 Eugene A. Stead Jr. Award of Achievement, Elizondo began his decorated, 40-year career in the uniformed services when he joined the U.S. Navy as a Hospital Corpsman. But it was a chance encounter with a PA in the mid-1970s that opened his eyes to even more opportunities to serve in healthcare.
“I still remember the name of that PA: Mr. Fields, and when he told me about all of the possibilities within the PA profession, it changed the trajectory of my life forever,” Elizondo said. “I really wanted to help people who didn’t have access to quality care and facilities, and I geared my career towards that.”
So he took a break from active duty in the Navy to attend PA school at Wichita State University. His goal upon graduating, he says, was to take the PA title as high as he could within the military.
Elizondo never lost sight of that goal, and after decades of military service, he was ultimately promoted to rear admiral upper half—making him the highest-ranking PA in the nation’s uniformed services and the first-ever PA to earn the distinction.
Achieving that rank was no small accomplishment. Throughout his career, Elizondo was widely regarded by his peers for his steadfast devotion to help those in need. And he did so while serving in a variety of senior leadership positions within several military and government organizations.
In addition to the Navy, he served as a commissioned officer for the Army Reserves and the Air Force. He went on to work in the Federal Bureau of Prisons for the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS), and later worked predominantly with Native American, immigrant and indigent populations as a regional health administrator for the USPHS in the southwestern United States.
Elizondo’s exceptional leadership skills were most evident in times of natural disasters and health epidemics. While with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), he served as deputy commander and commander of the emergency response teams during hurricanes Rita and Katrina and the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2015.
“Real leaders like [Elizondo] are hard to find,” former Surgeon General Richard Carmona wrote in a congratulatory letter to Elizondo upon his retirement. “They know how to inspire others to be the best they can be. They are stewards of their organization and mentors for those in the pipeline behind them.
“Over the years I had the privilege of working with [Elizondo] through some of the toughest assignments I thrust upon [him],” Carmona wrote. “[He] always exceeded my expectations and served the nation with grace, humility, and professionalism.”
Many government responders and military personnel might best remember Elizondo for the role he played during the response to Hurricane Katrina. It was Elizondo who led the development of a consistent communication strategy between multiple agencies, significantly improving essential information about the food, care and other resources needed by the Katrina evacuees who came to the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
“My colleagues and I clearly recall how Epi helped maintain a level of order amidst so much chaos during Katrina,” said Capt. Robin Hunter-Buskey, DHSC, MPAS, PA-C. “You won’t ever see him get flustered, and that’s a big part of why he’s so decorated. With each assignment, he provided a tremendous amount of leadership.”
Elizondo refined those leadership skills not only through his experiences in the field, but also in the classroom. Early in his career, he recognized a need to expand his education if he was going to achieve his goals.
“I knew I’d never quit being a clinical PA, but at the same time, I’ve always known how important it is for PAs to get into positions where decisions are made at these facilities, and the best way for me to do that was to get a diversified education; to prepare me for when the opportunities came.”
He went on to complete a master’s PA program as well as a master’s degree in healthcare administration. He credits furthering his education as the key that continually opened up new career opportunities, and he frequently tried to inspire others to do the same.
“PAs can have an incredible impact on healthcare in so many different ways,” Elizondo said. “I like to remind them to keep an open mind, look at what they want their career to become, and then do whatever it takes to prepare themselves for whenever those opportunities come.
“Those who have that kind of ambition and want to make a difference must not only look at where they want to end up, but it’s also important that they [identify] certain milestones they want to achieve throughout their career to guide them toward their end goals.”
Elizondo was an expert at helping others see the “big-picture view,” according to Hunter-Buskey. Even in his senior leadership roles, she said Elizondo would continually support and inspire new PAs to seek out more education and new roles to broaden their healthcare expertise as much as possible.
Having known Eugene Stead and what he did for PAs, Hunter-Buskey said she is especially thrilled for Elizondo to be recognized with the award named for the man who founded the PA profession.
“Dr. Stead spent his career teaching and helping people to be the best they could be for their patients, which is exactly what Epi did, in his own unique way,” Hunter-Buskey said. “Epi never sought out recognition for his accomplishments, but he most certainly touched the lives and careers of so many along the way.”
Whether it was his destiny, or just plain luck, Elizondo says becoming a PA was the best career move he could have made.
“That decision led me to countless experiences that were incredibly challenging, but also extremely rewarding,” he said. “The PA profession took me well beyond anything I would have ever expected to accomplish in my lifetime.”