The journey that led to the appointment of David R. Nelson, M.D., as interim leader of UF Health began, in a sense, with a young man’s busted knee.
Dartmouth College. Freshman year. Nelson intended to major in chemical engineering. But his real dream was soccer. He was good enough that he aspired to one day play for the U.S. Olympic team.
But then he suffered a serious knee injury in a scrimmage. Suddenly, Nelson needed a new ambition. He knew he wouldn’t find it in chemistry, which, in truth, he hated. The student dean suggested Nelson just take a new class that looked interesting on a subject he had never before considered.
Nelson’s selection: introduction to the neurosciences. He was hooked. The course ignited a passion for medicine. “Life happens,” Nelson said, “when you’re least expecting it.”
Nelson’s career path has taken what he views as another unexpected turn with his recent appointment as the interim senior vice president for health affairs and president of UF Health, succeeding David S. Guzick, M.D., Ph.D., who stepped down July 1.
Nelson had been serving as a professor in the UF College of Medicine and as assistant vice president for research and director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, or CTSI.
“I had never even thought about medicine until sitting in a hospital with all my other dreams dashed and thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh. What am I going to do?’” Nelson said. “And just like this new position, sometimes out of the chaos comes opportunity and purpose.”
His medical career has proven more successful and fulfilling than that youth with the dashed dreams could ever have imagined.
Nelson, whose two sons were born at UF Health Shands Hospital, has spent 25 years working in UF’s academic health center. After earning his medical degree from SUNY Upstate University in Syracuse, N.Y., Nelson’s career at UF Health began with fellowship training in gastroenterology and hepatology.
Nelson’s research has generated about $30 million in funding and he is the author of more than 200 publications.
While a loss in leadership is challenging for any institution, Nelson said, “There are a lot of good people sitting in the background who are able and willing to step up if empowered.”
He isn’t going it alone. Nelson said Guzick has been a close mentor who, along with Michael L. Good, M.D., who recently stepped down as the dean of the UF College of Medicine, will be key resources he can still tap.
Nelson said his new position is more than placeholder.
“This is a critical period for UF Health,” Nelson said. “Typically, an interim role would be a caretaker, somebody to just keep the lights on and keep things stable. The mandate that I’ve been given from UF President Kent Fuchs is that we need to continue to keep the academic health center and its research mission moving forward. To sit still for a year or two is unacceptable.”
Nelson spent his first weeks meeting with leaders in UF Health, including key division and department chairs on both the clinical and research side of the health system, to “give them the message that this institution is not standing still.”
One priority, for example, will be trying to speed the translation of research to improved patient care, an area where Nelson has experience as the leader of the CTSI. The goal is to shorten the average 17 years it takes to translate research findings into patient care advances.
“We’re gathering both the health care and research groups together and we’ll be targeting areas where we think we can really capitalize and move the translation piece very quickly,” he said.
UF Health Shands CEO Ed Jimenez said that focus on translational research is one reason Nelson is well-positioned to lead UF Health.
“Dr. Nelson will be a positive transitional leader,” Jimenez said. “He has focused much of his career on bringing discovery to the bedside and clearly understands the important link between science and patient care, something that is crucial for a robust academic health center. I’m eager to support him and I know he’s eager to keep UF Health moving forward.”
One request that Nelson made as he was offered his new role was that he continue to see patients in clinic once a week.
Nelson added, “I’m always a doctor first. And I’ll never give that up.”