With her three boys, ages five, three and one fast asleep in their beds, now USF College of Public Health alumna but then stay-at-home mom, Dr. Tracey Perez-Koehlmoos decided to make a phone call that would change her life.
Perez-Koehlmoos, also a former Army officer, was living in Honolulu when her Army officer husband received orders to MacDill Air Force Base. She was looking for a way to step into the health care field.
“One morning I woke up and I called the College of Public Health at USF from my back patio because the boys were sleeping,” she said. “I said ‘I have a bachelor’s in English, I was an Army officer, I’m a house wife now. What type of degree should I have to get into health care?’ and they ended up putting me through to someone who told me about the MHA [master of health administration degree].”
“It wasn’t without sacrifice,” she said. “I had three little boys and I didn’t work, my husband was deployed a lot so I had to hire a baby sitter three nights a week so I could take my classes.”
She said thanks to keeping her children on disciplined schedules, and places like Chuck E. Cheese or McDonald’s PlayPlace, where her children could stay occupied while she did homework, she was successful at earning her degrees.
“By the time I was working on my dissertation, I would take them to the USF library and they learned to pull journals from the stacks, and then they would bring me the journals so I could make the copies,” she said. “It was like my doctorate was a family affair.”
During her time as a student, Perez-Koehlmoos placed second runner-up for two years in a row for the Hill-Rom Essay Contest, a nationally competitive graduate student essay competition hosted by the American College of Healthcare Executives.
The last year of her doctoral degree, her husband was reassigned to Kathmandu, Nepal, separating him once again from the family for a year so she could defend her first two chapters and ensure all was ready for her final defense.
She was then thrust into public health work abroad, living and working in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan for more than 20 years.
She served as head of the Health and Family Planning Systems Programme at an international health research institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where she founded the Centre for Control of Chronic Diseases, which features a unique health systems approach to the issue of non-communicable disease in resource poor settings.
As a public health researcher with an interest in disparities across health services and systems, Perez-Koehlmoos said her proudest public health achievement has been the scaling up of zinc for the treatment of childhood diarrhea in Bangladesh on a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“I led a national scale up of a new drug targeting every child under the age of five in a foreign country, it was pretty amazing,” she said.
During her time abroad, Perez-Koehlmoos would also experience something that would impact not only her life, but that of her children as well.
While stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, her husband Colonel Randall Koehlmoos died in a road traffic crash in 2011.
She had to give up her research portfolio and move back to the U.S. with her children. She found employment as the public health advisor to Marine Corps leadership, working in the Pentagon for the Department of Defense.
According to Perez-Koehlmoos, the Department of Defense has its own massive healthcare system yet has gaps in the area of health services research. She took a job in July 2015 as a division director for health services administration and as an associate professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, which is part of the Department of Defense.
She now is building a robust health services research and education program. Also, she makes recommendations on complex issues requiring knowledge of administrative laws, policies, regulation, and precedent applicable to the administration of community health programs.
“I love that I get to do research, service, program development and teaching that improves the health of and healthcare received by soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their families,” she said. “And my students are future leaders of the military health system. I feel so fortunate to be able to do this work.”
Her future aspirations include getting promoted to full professor and having her academic program become CAHME accredited, as well as building a robust health services research program for the Department of Defense.
“My public health practice is knowledge translation and my passion is improving the lives of the poor and disadvantaged groups,” she said.
Her eldest child is now 22-years-old, graduated from West Point, and working on a master’s degree in cyber operations from the Naval Post Graduate School. Her 20-year-old is studying psychology at Goucher College in Baltimore, Md. Her youngest, now an 18-years-old high school senior, aims to follow in his parent’s footsteps and pursue a military career.
She speaks of her children with great pride and admiration for their ability to adapt in their childhood.
“These are public health children. They washed their hands and got their shots,” she said. “They are practitioners because they grew up in pretty rough spots, it’s not easy to spend your childhood in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia.”
While her career has spanned the globe, Perez-Koehlmoos traces the origins of her career back to the USF COPH and faculty who helped to guide her along the way.
“I was a housewife with three babies when I started school and it turned out to be ok,” she said. “I had great professors; I had the best friends; I went back to school and they [faculty at COPH] turned this housewife into a world class researcher.”
Fast Five for COPH Alumni:
What did you dream of becoming when you were young?
Where would we find you on the weekend?
Writing papers or hiking.
What is the last book you read?
What superpower would you like to have?
What’s your all-time favorite movie?
“From Here to Eternity.”
Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health