First Responder

Brian Panasuk (M.P.H. ’10) is on the frontline of health emergencies for the CDC.

It was September 2014, during the height of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, when Brian Panasuk first laid eyes on Liberia.

But it’s the smell he’ll never forget. “Diesel,” he said. “There were generators everywhere.”

Brian Panasuk

Brian Panasuk

Panasuk had been working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Joint Information Center in Atlanta for only two years when he was dropped into the middle of a public health crisis in a foreign land. His job as a health communications specialist was to make sure the teams of emergency responders that deployed with him were able to work together and share information.

Lives were at stake. Amid the fumes, long hours, tight working quarters and constant demands, Panasuk said he realized he loved the job. He volunteered to go back to Liberia twice more last year with the CDC, working alongside USAID’s disaster response team to procure supplies to build Ebola treatment units and instruct health care workers how to keep the deadly disease from spreading.

During spring 2016, Panasuk deployed to Puerto Rico to be part of the CDC’s response to the Zika virus outbreak. He was among the first group of CDC emergency responders to arrive on the Caribbean island.

“Our job was to lay the groundwork for the next teams to come in,” he said. Panasuk and his team set up their workspace in the Puerto Rico Department of Health, working with local public health officials.

When Panasuk isn’t responding to health emergencies, his focus is on preparing for the next one.

“We work with other CDC centers so that when an emergency does come — whether it’s an infectious disease outbreak or a natural disaster — they know whom they’ll be working with and we can instantly build a roster of who’s responding,” he said.

“I think I thrive on emergency response work. It’s like Clark Kent going into the booth and coming out as Superman.”

Illustration by Adam Cruft