TMA Awards Highest Honor to Two Physicians: “This is Why Organized Medicine Is So Important”
By Sean Price

The Texas Medical Association typically recognizes one physician each year with the Distinguished Service Award – it’s highest honor. But this year, two champions of organized medicine received the award at TexMed 2023 in Fort Worth: TMA past President Diana Fite, MD, and El Paso pediatric infectious disease specialist Gilbert Handal, MD. 

It was just the fourth time that TMA’s Board of Councilors honored two people at once since the award was created in 1962. Dr. Fite, TMA’s 155th president, helped lead Texas through the COVID-19 pandemic during her tenure from 2020 to 2021, while Dr. Handal has pioneered local, state, national, and international efforts to vaccinate and treat children.  

“We all felt Dr. Fite did an amazing job representing and leading TMA through uncharted territory when it came to the pandemic, while clearly Dr. Handal’s decades of dedication to medicine and leadership in advocacy also couldn’t be overlooked,” said board Chair Alisa M. Berger, MD, a College Station urologist. 

Former TMA House of Delegates Speaker Arlo Weltge, MD, introduced Dr. Fite before this year’s delegates by pointing out that he and Dr. Fite attended what is now McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston at the same time in the 1970s. She graduated with honors and moved on to emergency medicine, where she quickly became a leader in the specialty, serving as president of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians. 

Before becoming TMA’s sixth woman president, Dr. Fite served on more than 25 boards, councils, and committees over four decades, including having chaired the TMA Board of Trustees, a TMA council, and several committees. She also presided over the Harris County Medical Society and serves on the Texas Delegation to the American Medical Association. For decades, she has been active in TEXPAC, TMA’s political action committee, and in TMA advocacy efforts. 

Dr. Fite thanked all the friends and mentors she’s had at TMA, saying every time she thought of one, three more came to mind. 

“This is why organized medicine is so important to physicians – to make all these friends and contacts is something that we will cherish the rest of our lives, and it helps us get through all the hard stress of taking care of patients,” she said. 

As TMA’s president, Dr. Fite focused almost all her attention on COVID-19, leading TMA in efforts to find personal protective equipment for physicians, educate the public, keep up with the latest treatments, and help physician practices stay open.  

This commitment to medicine has not been easy, Dr. Weltge said. Dr. Fite is the mother of eight children, two of whom have died. Also, in 2006, Dr. Fite experienced an acute stroke that left her without speech or movement in half her body. Fortunately, it was diagnosed and treated quickly. 

“She made a complete recovery – and then later appeared on the front page of The New York Times promoting awareness of the importance of early stroke recognition,” Dr. Weltge said. 

Dr. Fite said she felt obligated to point out the difficulties facing emergency medicine right now. Overcrowding in emergency departments (EDs) has reached critical levels, she says. Patients are now kept indefinitely in ED hallways, forcing physicians to see patients in the waiting room, where there is usually little privacy or security.  

“This is something that is disrespectful to patients,” she said. “They can’t get a decent exam, we can’t get a decent history from them. It’s disrespectful to the physicians. I think it’s contributing badly to the burnout … for emergency physicians.” 

She added: “We as the Texas Medical Association, we’re large enough together. We can make our voice heard on this issue.” 

El Paso internist Roxanne Tyroch, MD, introduced Dr. Handal, who studied at the University of Chile in Santiago during the 1960s, then trained in infectious diseases in Miami, Fla., before moving to El Paso in 1975.  

He arrived at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso campus during its early development and was the only faculty for the pediatrics department, sleeping in the hospital while tending to 3,000 deliveries that first year with five residents, she said. Today, the department has 35 faculty and 15 three-year residents. 

“He loves teaching and instructs his students and residents to care for each child as if it were your child,” Dr. Tyroch said. “He reminds us all that medicine is a profession, and not just a job; his wish is that organized medicine will espouse these values and instill them in decision-makers.” 

In his long-term goal to improve health for children and adults on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, Dr. Handal has chaired the Border Health Commission and the state and local regional advisory councils, and he has served on the TMA-affiliated Border Health Caucus. A councilor on the TMA Board of Councilors, Dr. Handal also has represented his local delegation in TMA’s House of Delegates. He’s also been president of the El Paso County Medical Society (EPCMS) and led in several other TMA, EPCMS, and Texas Pediatric Society roles. They include serving on TMA’s Committee on Child and Adolescent Health and Committee on Infectious Diseases as well as being a member of the International Medical Graduate Section

Dr. Handal thanked TMA, EPCMS, and medical societies in Mexico for their support of his many efforts to improve health care in both countries. 

“Knowing that organized medicine is behind everything and anything we can do, that is so important,” he said.  

Those efforts include:   

  • Creating a binational conference designed to compare and contrast how the two countries address children’s health; 
  • Opening an initiative in five El Paso school districts that used a mobile care unit to help uninsured children at nine schools; 
  • Winning a $2.5 million grant to establish a municipal health care system in Juarez, Mexico, that ultimately provided care for 93,000 families; and 
  • Creating an El Paso County vaccination program for human papillomavirus (HPV) that produced some of the highest HPV vaccination rates in the country.  

“Clearly, children and families are suffering in our country,” he said. “They are suffering everywhere. My philosophy is to [work] with the medical societies to see how we can improve [care] not just for the individual but the society.” 

Last Updated On

May 27, 2023

Originally Published On

May 24, 2023

Related Content