by Angie Kay Dilmore
Dr. Lacey Cavanaugh knew she wanted to become a physician after a junior high school field trip to a science museum. “I held a human brain and heart in my hands, and just knew that science and medicine were meant for me,” she says. Attracted by the small-school atmosphere and a scholarship offer, Dr. Cavanaugh attended Centenary College in Shreveport and double majored in biochemistry and neuroscience. There, she met the love of her life, Jake Cavanaugh. The two were married in 2009 and have two young daughters.
In 2005, Dr. Cavanaugh began studies at LSU Medical School in New Orleans. Three weeks into her first semester, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city – but she and her classmates persevered. She chose a career in Family Medicine because she wanted to “create meaningful relationships and work in a small town where I knew people and could help them through whatever events happened through their lives.”
Dr. Cavanaugh completed her residency program at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital. “Family Medicine is a little of every part of medicine – during residency I delivered babies, cared for people with chronic diseases, did procedures, worked in the ER and hospital, saw healthy kids, cared for the mental health of my patients, and provided prevention and advice to my patients. There was never a dull moment.”
Post-residency, Dr. Cavanaugh had a private practice in Sulphur. After she and Jake had their first daughter, she moved her practice to West Calcasieu Cameron Hospital’s Rural Health Clinic in Vinton, and worked at Family Physician’s Urgent Care in Sulphur, caring for patients in those communities for nine years.
In 2019, Dr. Cavanaugh accepted the position of Region 5 Medical Director. She describes her role as “Chief Health Strategist” for our community. Thrive magazine recently connected with this busy physician, and she shared details of the experiences that led her to her current role, the challenges brought on by the events of the past year, and her dreams for a healthier Southwest Louisiana.
Describe your childhood, growing up in rural Louisiana.
I was born and raised in Lutcher, Louisiana, a small town where everyone knows everyone else. There were only four red lights and two fast food chains when I started to drive. Lutcher’s “big event” every year is the Christmas Eve Bonfires – a defining memory of my childhood. Dad worked in the petrochemical industry, Mom worked at a local bank, and I have two younger brothers. We spent most of our youth outside playing in the neighborhood until it got dark every day.
Describe your experiences after Hurricane Katrina.
I was out of school for many weeks with uncertainty on the future. My classmates and I volunteered at the special needs shelter at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center at LSU. Eventually the school re-opened temporarily in Baton Rouge, and we lived on a Finnish ferry boat (yes, from Finland) on the Mississippi River, took a school bus to class, and dissected our cadavers at the vet school next to the horses. My first clinical experience was in the makeshift tent ER in the Lord and Taylor shopping center on Canal Street in the aftermath of Katrina. It was a full year before we moved back to the New Orleans campus. Despite the adversity, we thrived and bonded, and it was an experience that still shapes me.
What encouraged you and Jake to remain in Southwest Louisiana after your residency?
I had always thought I would return home to practice in Lutcher, but after living in SWLA for three years, Jake and I loved it. We knew it would be a great place to raise our family, so we put down roots and stayed.
What considerations prompted you to accept the position of Regional Medical Director?
Although I absolutely loved practicing medicine and taking care of people, I learned there are many factors outside of clinical care that impact health. Being free from disease is not the same as true wellness. Many parts of healthcare are broken, and some people who want to be healthy do not have the tools, education, or resources they need to achieve wellness. When the position of Regional Medical Director with the Louisiana Department of Health opened, I couldn’t pass it up. I saw it as an opportunity to help make our entire community healthier.
The community is familiar with you from your appearances on television press conferences. But there is more to being a Regional Medical Director than that public persona. What does your job entail? COVID-19 hit less than a year after I started in this role, and it has been a whirlwind. But other than the pandemic, there are many things Public Health does.
We operate six Parish Health Units over the five-parish region – all of which provide a variety of clinical services, such as WIC, immunizations, reproductive health, Children’s Special Health Services, and others. We provide infectious disease control, and work with numerous departments within the Louisiana Office of Public Health to monitor safe drinking water, food safety, and other environmental health hazards. We’re responsible for many emergency functions, including coordination with local healthcare partners, EMS, hospitals, nursing homes, and others to provide support to state medical special needs shelters. I serve on numerous boards, commissions, and taskforces that strive to tackle a variety of public health concerns. But I feel my most important role includes the planning and execution of programs that help our community become healthier. This takes coordination between multiple groups, both public and private. Being a communicator and educator is a huge part of that!
How did your role change early last year with the advent of the pandemic and how has it evolved since then?
COVID-19 changed everything. One minute, we were engaging our partners to attempt to create the first community-wide “Southwest Louisiana Health Assessment and Improvement Plan” and the next week we were monitoring COVID-19 in China and in returning travelers. Two weeks later, the entire world basically shut down. During those early days, we knew very little about this dangerous virus. The answer to almost every question was “We just don’t know yet.” (Which is very hard for science. We are used to having good explanations for most things!) Over time, the response evolved as we learned more and received more resources. Early days were filled with concerns about lack of Personal Protective Equipment, lack of testing supplies, and lack of hospital beds/capacity. We were finally in a good place before Hurricanes Laura and Delta hit, and then all attention turned to the immediate issues following the storms. We’ve since moved into the current exciting phase – where we now have a vaccine to fight this virus. Unfortunately, discussion about COVID-19 has become political, and that has made it difficult for people to fully see and understand our current situation.
What has it been like for you to be the public face of the medical community during a global pandemic?
It’s been difficult for a multitude of reasons – long hours, many people who are just angry about it, many questions that are unanswered. It has also been rewarding in that we’ve received much heartfelt gratitude – so I try to focus on that rather than the negatives.
What’s been your greatest challenge as our Regional Medical Director?
The greatest challenge has been managing the aftermath of Laura during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of our public health staff lost their homes and belongings during Laura, but they were still needed in both the Laura and COVID-19 response, especially during this busy season of vaccination. Balancing the need to allow our staff to recover, acknowledging the stress on them personally and their families, while still needing to get the job done – in damaged buildings with few resources – was a huge challenge. Despite the difficulties, my team stepped up to the plate. We set up drive-through Tetanus, Hep A, and Flu vaccines within a few days after Laura. We opened a temporary free clinic out of a tent through a partnership with the LSU/Lake Charles Memorial Hospital Residency program to provide local citizens access to basic care like prescription refills. Our teams answered triage calls, assisted in directing citizens to medical resources, and set up the first rapid COVID-19 testing drive-through in the state for our first responders with the assistance of the Louisiana National Guard. We educated the public on the dangers of carbon monoxide from generators, assisted in evacuations, stressed the importance of water boil advisories, and worked with our hospitals to ensure the availability of emergency care. As immediate post-storm needs began to settle, it only got busier as we set up COVID-19 vaccination sites across the region. I never expected a global pandemic and four federal disasters in my first two years in Public Health. You can’t make this stuff up!
What has been most rewarding? My team and I are exhausted – but it has also been an incredible and rewarding experience. Knowing that although times have been tough, we have done our absolute best with the resources we have been given to serve the people of this region. It makes me proud to see what the Public Health team in SWLA has accomplished despite adversity.
From a public health standpoint, what do you most want the community to know?
I want people to know that public health is much more than COVID-19. Although this virus is what everyone hears about and talks about, Louisiana is last in nearly every health measure. The events of the past year have undoubtedly worsened our health. The leading causes of death in Southwest Louisiana pre-COVID-19 were heart disease and cancer, and these problems have not gone away. It takes an entire community approach to improve health and wellness – and it cannot be done by one office or person alone.
As we rebuild and recover from the numerous disasters we have faced, we need to consider health and make it a priority in everything we do.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
With two kids (ages eight and six) and a husband who also owns a practice as an Audiologist, we stay pretty busy with normal stuff, and there isn’t much free time. We love to travel and make frequent trips to Baton Rouge and New Orleans to visit all the extended family. The beach is my happy place, so we vacation in Destin, Florida. I have a wonderful tribe of friends and we enjoy our “girls’ nights” to decompress. I love to read murder mysteries and exercise. In college, I was an avid swimmer and completed an Ironman 70.3. But I currently don’t have much time for those hobbies, though I hope to return to them as my kids get older.