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Leading With Honor

Meet the man helping shape CSU’s response to the pandemic

By Jordan Burress

Years ago, when the world was gripped by the conflict with Saddam Hussein during what was known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, a little boy and his friends kicked around a ball at the Kuwait/Iraq border in the town of Safwan, Iraq. 

Soccer was a popular pastime among Iraqi children; in fact, some accounts attribute the love of the game to fostering deep connections between U.S. servicemen stationed in the country and locals. This day, though, the innocent game among friends would prove potentially fatal. That’s because, at the time, Safwan was a site notorious for its number of improvised explosive devices. And this boy, to his great misfortune, would unknowingly trigger one and immediately sever both of his legs.

Across the border in Kuwait, a U.S. medic at a combat hospital fortuitously located in sight of the blast quickly and instinctively ran to the injured boy, applied a tourniquet and carried him back to the hospital. The problem, though, was that this little boy was an Iraqi, and Iraqis were legally forbidden from entering Kuwait. 

Doctors at the hospital jumped into action, treating the boy’s wounds to save his life.

Twenty minutes later, the phone rang. 

The chief of mission from the U.S. embassy in Kuwait was calling to speak with then-Captain Forrest Faison III, head of the combat hospital.

“You know you broke the law,” the chief said, acknowledging the medic’s actions in carrying the boy across the border.

“Yes, sir. We did,” Faison agreed.

“What were you thinking? What are you doing up there?”

“Sir, we’re saving the life of a little boy. Is there a problem?”

Silence. Faison held the phone awaiting a response.

“I’ll have to call you back,” the chief said.

He never did.

“That little boy was evacuated and is alive today,” Faison said.

He laughs about the experience, fully aware that it could have become an international incident, but he’s as resolute now about his decision to flout the law as he was then. After all, a boy’s life was at stake. And he was a doctor.

“Always do the right thing and be willing to stand tall for that,” he said.

It’s a leadership principle that guided him during his nearly 40-year military career that took him around the world many times over, culminating with his service as surgeon general for the Navy.

Growing up in Rocky River, Ohio, Faison never envisioned leading a life of extraordinary accomplishment and notoriety, commanding combat hospitals in the Middle East, overseeing a staff of 16,000 on the west coast as head of Navy Medicine West and coordinating relief efforts for some of the world’s worst natural disasters and pandemics.

“I’d been taught that your life is about helping people and so I thought being a minister would be a cool way to do that,” he laughs.

That would change in college, however, when he landed a summer job as a lab assistant in the pharmacology department at the newly created Uniformed Services University (USU), a military medical school in Bethesda, Maryland.

“Sometimes God plans your life differently than you.”

Faison had enrolled at Wake Forest University fully intent on pursuing a career in the ministry, but needed to work to afford college. That work—cleaning test tubes and caring for lab rats—exposed him to the world of medicine, piquing his interest. And he soon toyed with the thought of becoming a doctor.

“That was a very tough decision,” he said.

“I struggled with it. I prayed about it. I didn’t know what the right answer was.”

But one day, in what might have been a flash of divine inspiration, Faison crossed a square of concrete at the base of an oak tree on the way to class at Wake Forest and suddenly the choice became clear.

“I knew I was supposed to go to medical school and become a doctor.”

Once Faison graduated with his chemistry degree, he enrolled at USU, almost wholly because it was free, made the choice to serve in the Navy (“I thought you’d always be near a beach”) and eventually made pediatrics, specifically neurodevelopment pediatrics, his focus.

The work was incredibly rewarding, and he was content as a physician. His superiors, however, saw more in him.

On a tour in Yokosuka, Japan, Faison ran the disabled children services unit, caring for children with autism, cerebral palsy and other development disabilities.

“My boss wanted me to be the medical director and I didn’t want to do that,” he said.

“So, I avoided this guy because I didn’t want to be in executive medicine.”

Eventually, though, his boss caught up with him, offering him the role to which Faison ultimately agreed.

“I didn’t go into medicine for titles or rank,” he said. “I went into medicine to help people.”

From that point on, every opportunity to advance into progressively senior roles had to allow him to remain true to that ideal. It’s likely why his ascent is as remarkable as it is, why he became known on Capitol Hill as a straight-shooter and why, when the secretary of the Navy offered him the chance to become surgeon general, he laid awake that night thinking of the ways that he could serve in a greater capacity.

“You have to ask yourself: ‘why are you doing what you’re doing,’” he said.

“If you’re doing it because you need the titles, the rank or the prestige, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. You do something because you can make a difference and help people, but it is never about you.”

After retiring from the Navy, he could have rested on the laurels of a decorated career, but that’s not who he is. As senior vice president for research and innovation and chief health strategy officer at CSU, his role is to oversee the broad effort to unify and expand CSU’s educational, outreach and scholarship efforts in all aspects of health care, while spurring the continued growth of Cleveland as a center for medical innovation.

“CSU was an amazing opportunity to help people and help my hometown.”

He had only been on campus two days when President Harlan Sands appointed him to lead the university’s Pandemic Response Team.

“I hadn’t even gotten my parking pass yet,” he laughed.

By the time he’d officially started back in March, the coronavirus had unexpectedly become a catastrophic global pandemic and the university had to make quick decisions to shift to remote learning.

In his role as the lead of the response team, Faison oversees the work of over 20 CSU experts and senior officials that made the transition while preparing the campus for the fall semester. In addition, he leads a group of university and college officials statewide in coordinating their efforts to ensure a uniformity in the state response to the pandemic.

Having overseen the Navy’s response to the Ebola, MERS, Zika, SARS, flu and Middle Eastern virus crises, Faison brought that wealth of experience in guiding Cleveland State’s team. He and his team daily monitor campus, evaluating dashboards of information, from measuring the rate of COVID-19 positivity to determining how the campus community is adhering to newly established protocols.

Given the unpredictable nature of the virus, Faison approaches the work with pragmatically cautious but hopeful optimism.

“I tell my team that whether we realize it or not, a trust has been placed in our hands,” he said.

“And that trust is the belief of every student, faculty, staff and everyone’s families that we will do all we can to protect them. So, we honor that trust every day.”

Earning and honoring trust. It’s another one of those values he’s carried with him from the Navy, learned in the thick of global crises, in his work with young parents coping with their children’s development disabilities, in leading a global healthcare network around the world, and now, in helping to lead the CSU community through a pandemic.

“We will always have pandemics,” he said.

“What’s important is how we respond to them.” 

Also in this Issue...

COVID-19 Research at CSU

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Hope, Strength, Resilience: How the CSU community responded to the global pandemic

Difficulty is often the ground from which some of life’s greatest triumphs bloom. And there’s no mistaking that COVID-19 plagued 2020 with what seemed to be an never-ending barrage of challenges. But the CSU community swiftly responded with compassion and a laser-focused determination to emerge better for having weathered the storm. Read more >>

Quarantined in China

Alumna Carrie Kidd (BA '17) sat in an airport in Wuhan, China, during an eight-hour layover on the night of December 30, 2019. As she waited for her next flight, she scrolled through Chinese news sources on her phone. Suddenly, she spotted a headline with Wuhan in the title. Read more >>

The CSU Community Quickly Moved Into Action

From delivering PPE to stitching face masks, students, faculty and staff quickly sprang into action in response to the pandemic. Read more >>

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