RICHMOND, Va. – March will mark one year since Virginia reported its first, confirmed COVID-19 case, and Dr. Norm Oliver, Virginia’s State Health Commissioner, has played a key role in shaping the Commonwealth’s response.
As State Health Commissioner, Dr. Oliver and his team have worked to lay out a path to wellness for Virginians, but his own journey has followed a more unconventional route.
“I was not one of those people who knew they wanted to be a physician at age five and kept going like a straight arrow towards that goal,” Oliver said.
The Detroit native said he was interested in science growing up, and attended a high school where he enjoyed studying physics and chemistry.
After high school, Oliver said he became involved with the civil rights movement, which shaped his outlook on life.
“The civil rights movement was pretty strong in Detroit,” Oliver said. “As a young teenager I got involved in civil rights actions and activities, and I think it was that that made me feel, gave me some kind of vision of what I could be as a person.”
Dr. Oliver later left Detroit and moved to New York City, where he worked at a small print shop that published a weekly newspaper. An offer from the paper’s editor to fill in on a reporting assignment turned out to be a serendipitous next step.
“I typed up the story and gave it to him,” Oliver said. “He went into his office and came back out a while later. ‘Oliver! Come here!’ And I came in and he says, ‘Not half bad. You want to be a reporter?’ And I said, ‘Sure!’ And that’s pretty much what I did for the next 15 years.”
It was Dr. Oliver’s work with medical journalism that caused his path to take another turn.
“I told my wife Susan, ‘You know, I think I’d rather do this stuff than write about it. It seems really fascinating,’ and she said ‘Go for it!,’” Oliver said.
At the age of 36, Norm Oliver decided he wanted to be Dr. Oliver, but faced a major challenge: “I had not gone to college,” Oliver said.
He soon earned his bachelor’s degree and at the age of 40 started medical school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Case Western [Reserve] back then and to this very day, prides itself on taking what it calls ‘bent arrows,’” Oliver said. “These are people who have had other life experiences before coming to med school. So in my class, for example, I started med school at age 40, in my class there were 8 of us who were 40 or older. I was not the oldest. The oldest was 48.”
Dr. Oliver said he knew what he wanted to study before he entered medical school.
“I was really interested in what motivated people, so psychologically, the cultural and social factors that influenced people’s behavior and also what influenced their health and their well-being,” Oliver said.
His first job out of medical school was once again off the beaten path. Dr. Oliver and his family moved more than 3,000 miles away to Alaska.
“I had to deal with disease and illness there that you just wouldn’t see in the lower 48,” Oliver said.
He said the experience was unique not only professionally, but also personally.
“We were immersed in a culture that was really very different from any we had ever experienced,” Oliver said.
It was there that opportunity called, quite literally. A phone call from a medical school mentor paved the way for Dr. Oliver’s next step: joining the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
“I loved working with such bright minds, talking about the subject that I loved which was our health and well-being is not a matter of genetics but it’s so wrapped up in where you sit in society,” Oliver said.
Among those who took notice of Dr. Oliver’s words and actions was Dr. Cameron Webb, who was an undergraduate student at UVA at the time.
“He was in leadership in the health system and he was speaking out against social injustice,” Webb said. “Again, it was just great to see that in real life, in real time, right in front of me and know that that’s a path that I could walk.”
Dr. Webb ran as the Democratic candidate for Virginia’s 5th Congressional District and currently serves with the White House COVID-19 Response Team.
Dr. Webb said Dr. Oliver has continued to serve as a mentor to him.
Dr. Oliver later became chair of the Department of Family Medicine and worked to make its clinics more patient-focused.
“My view of being a really good clinician is caring for your patients. I don’t mean that in the medical sense. I mean really caring about the person sitting in front of you because if you don’t care about them, I don’t think you can take good care of them as a doc. So I always tried to demonstrate that,” Oliver said.
Just like before, opportunity and preparation collided, paving the way for Dr. Oliver’s transition to the Virginia Department of Health.
“The job description sounded like I had written it for myself. So I applied for the job and got it,” Oliver said.
Less than a year into his position as Deputy Commissioner for Population Health at VDH, Dr. Oliver was named Virginia State Health Commissioner, with a continued focus on the social and cultural factors that impact health, particularly for communities of color.
“Equity has to be an underlying theme for what we do. It’s equity in all of our policies,” Oliver said. “Whether it’s V-DOT or social services or whatever. We have to be about who’s benefiting from this? Are the most vulnerable benefiting from this? And if not, how do we change it so the most vulnerable benefit?”
It’s a focus he said is especially important during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black, Latino and Native American people.
He said he understands how exhausting the past year has been but says there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
“When we’ve vaccinated enough people and we get herd immunity and we can go back to some semblance of normality, whatever that is, that’s going to be a huge success,” Oliver said.
A man who has spent his life blazing a trail, personally and professionally, is now leading the Virginia Department of Health down its own path in which he is working to make sure diversity, equity and inclusion are ingrained in its culture.
Oliver said with a smile, “Fifteen years from now if they’re still doing it, I can smile and say, ’Yeah, I had something to do with that.’”
He shared that one of the biggest keys to his success has been the unwavering support of his wife and family.
“You can’t do anything really significant without the support of others, and I never would have made it through any of this without my wife.”