Chiles Center promotes health for all women and babies

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It was January 1998, and the Florida Board of Regents had just promoted one of USF’s fledgling entities to major status with sublimely understated efficiency.

Following authorizations for a BS in dance education, a degree of undetermined level in occupational therapy and an MS in physical therapy, it was the last of four single-sentence items in the typically dry language of officialdom, replete with redundancy and excessive capitalization, on a State University System memo to Dr. Thomas Tighe, then USF provost: “Established the Type I Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies as a Type I Center (sic).”

Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center logo

The rationale for the Center’s status elevation cited the state’s “tremendous progress in improving the health status of pregnant women and infants, largely through the leadership of Gov. and Mrs. Chiles and Charles Mahan,” who was then USF College of Public Health dean.  Marked improvement in the state’s infant mortality rate was among the leading factors, along with the Center’s performance the previous two years as a Type IV center.

Mahan had envisioned a research, program and policy institute for maternal and infant health as early as 1988, according to the Center’s official timeline.  The Center’s originally intended location was the University of Florida, Mahan said, but that was before the state had established its first college of public health at USF.  By the time the Center was created a few years later, USF, with the only COPH in the state, had become the obvious location, and Mahan had been named COPH dean.

Dr. Charles Mahan

Charles Mahan, MD, former USF College of Public Health dean

“Gov. and Mrs. Chiles had a lot of allegiance to the University of Florida, where they met and where he got his law degree,” Mahan said.  “I was state health officer on loan from the medical school at Florida, and I was supposed to go back there, and the Chiles Center was supposed to be there.”

But having served in the same administration, Mahan was friends with Betty Castor, who had been state secretary of education under Chiles and had since become president of USF.  Mahan said she called him and personally asked him to be the dean of COPH.  He accepted, and the first “steal” from the University of Florida only naturally led to the second.

USF was the better location for the Chiles Center, Castor told the governor, as it had the only college of public health and was headed by a dean who had served him as state health officer.  It also had a Healthy Beginnings program in place that arguably was already doing some of the work the Chiles Center would do.

Sam Bell and Betty Castor, former USF president and Florida Secretary of Education

Dr. Betty Castor, former USF president and Florida secretary of education.  To her left is her husband, former Florida state Rep. Samuel P. Bell III.

The Florida Healthy Start Program had been created by the legislature in 1991, under the urging of Chiles, and from its inception, had included a Healthy Beginnings Program at USF.  So when Mahan was appointed COPH dean in February 1995, he was at the right place at the right time to begin realization of his vision.  A year later, the Board of Regents established the Center, and Mahan served as its founding director in addition to his duties as COPH dean.

A $2-million federal grant followed in 1997 that was specifically aimed at reducing infant mortality in Hillsborough County.  In December of that year, a gala event at Busch Gardens honored the governor and his wife and formally launched the Center.  Additional state funding came in 1998 for construction of a building and a $600,000 annual operating budget.

Florida first lady Rhea Chiles (third from right) and her and the governor's daughter, also named Rhea (fourth from right) at the Chiles Center's groundbreaking ceremony.

Former Florida first lady Rhea Chiles (third from right) and her and the late governor’s daughter, also named Rhea (fourth from right), and son Ed (center) at the Chiles Center’s groundbreaking ceremony.

“President Castor invited Gov. and Mrs. Chiles down to USF, and we toured the campus and got them to put their names on the Chiles Center,” Mahan recalled.  “And then, Gov. Chiles was great about taking me to Washington and meeting all the senators who were his friends and raising money for the building.”

That journey for federal support brought home another $800,000 for the building.  The governor and first lady then spearheaded a series of fundraisers in Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Pensacola, Tallahassee and West Palm Beach.


“The Center was originally housed in office space near Tampa International Airport on Mariner Drive,” recalled Dr. Linda A. Detman, research associate for the Center.  “I believe that was from 1996 to 1998.  The Center’s first on-campus location was in FMHI, what is now labeled on maps as the College of Behavioral & Community Sciences building.  We also had a pair of temporary trailers for added office space between FMHI and the Westside Conference Center.”

Gov. Lawton Chiles (right) and daughter Rhea with Dr. Harold Varmus, then director of the National Institutes of Health.

Gov. Lawton Chiles (right) and daughter Rhea with Dr. Harold Varmus, then director of the National Institutes of Health, at the dedication of Lawton Chiles House (not related to the Chiles Center).

The Center’s impressive home since 2001 puts plenty of inspiration on display for visitors and staff alike:  A photo gallery of Gov. and Mrs. Chiles, including framed moments with presidents Clinton, Carter and Bush the first; a replica of the governor’s Tallahassee conference room for his use whenever he visited; even a bronzed pair of “Walkin’ Lawton’s” famous shoes.

Walking Lawton Shoes

After all, inspiration is what it’s all about.  Over the years, the Chiles Center’s health care initiatives have racked up impressive victories, to say the least.

“At the Chiles Center, Florida Covering Kids and Families and its collaborators across the state exceeded the federal goal for Florida in enrolling people for health care coverage in the federal health insurance marketplaces,” said Dr. William M. Sappenfield, Chiles Center director and Department of Community and Family Health chair and professor.  “During the first open enrollment, about 500,000 more individuals enrolled over the initial target and reached more than 1.6 million after the second enrollment period.  Moreover, because of the success of projects like this, Florida now enrolls more people through this important health insurance program than any other state.”

William M. Sappenfield, MD, MPH

William M. Sappenfield, MD, MPH, director of the Chiles Center

Sappenfield also points to one of the Center’s most recent projects, the Florida Perinatal Quality Collaborative, which has radically reduced elective early deliveries (before 39 weeks of gestation).

“Babies electively delivered before 39 weeks are at higher risk of poor outcomes, including respiratory troubles and difficulties feeding, and are at higher risk of learning, behavioral and school-related problems in childhood,” explained Detman, who oversees the project.

“It continues to make a measurable difference in the quality of health care that mothers and babies are receiving,” Sappenfield said, “through improving newborn health care at birth and reducing death and morbidity to obstetric hemorrhage.”

Another recent Chiles Center project is the Obstetric Hemorrhage Initiative begun in October 2013 with 31 Florida and four North Carolina hospitals.  The participating Florida hospitals represent more than one-forth of the state’s delivery hospitals and nearly two-thirds of all births statewide, Detman said, adding that maternal deaths from postpartum hemorrhage are the leading cause of maternal mortality in the state.

Linda Detman, PhD

Linda Detman, PhD, program manager for the Chiles Center’s Florida Perinatal Quality Collaborative

“We are fortunate to have the enthusiasm and dedication of perinatal professionals across the state who want to be engaged in improving outcomes for mothers and infants, and we plan to grow in the number of hospitals actively engaged in one or more of our projects,” she said.

Though funding issues put an end to the Center’s branch office in Tallahassee years ago, the original main office – now an imposing office building – on the USF Tampa campus continues to thrive and achieve.

“As was initially dreamed, the Chiles Center continues to improve the health and health care of women, children and families in Florida,” Sappenfield said.  “We will continue to build upon and expand these successful collaborations to succeed in our mission of improving their health and health care.”

Gov. Chiles visits COPH and its dean, Dr. Charles Mahan, in 1995.

Gov. Chiles visits COPH and its dean, Dr. Charles Mahan, in 1995.

“We worked with Gov. and Mrs. Chiles for many years to devise and implement programs and ideas to improve the pregnancy outcomes for women and babies,” Mahan said.  “The LRCC is designed to carry out these efforts and continue to design and improve new ones for future generations.”


Story by David Brothers, College of Public Health.