“He was the real deal” UF Health works to carry on Dr. Haley’s mission

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The death of Dr. Leon Haley, Jr., the CEO of UF Health, stunned the hospital and the community.

Now, his colleagues are working to make sure his legacy lives on in Jacksonville.

Haley led the way when it came to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, access and education about the virus. Chad Neilsen, the Infection Prevention Director and Epidemiologist at UF Health told Action News Jax Courtney Cole one of the last things Dr. Haley did at the hospital, was walk the floors and personally vaccinate staff.

Dr. David Vukich, the Chief Medical Officer, told Cole they’re planning to hold a vaccine drive at the hospital this week, named in Dr. Haley’s honor.

“We request and plead as he would—that you get vaccinated to save your life and someone else’s,” Dr. Vukich said compassionately.

Vukich said that’s what Dr. Leon Haley would have wanted them to do. He had a special relationship with Dr. Haley.

Vukich recruited him to become the Dean of the UF College of Medicine Jacksonville, back in 2017. He would go on to become the hospital’s first black CEO, just one year later in 2018.

“He was the real deal, and they don’t come along very often,” Vukich said.

Dr. Haley was the first person in Florida to get the COVID-19 shot back in December 2020. Action News Jax was there as he rolled up his sleeve for the vaccine.

“He was very galvanizing. He brought us together just like a great football coach would. And it didn’t matter what position you were playing,” Vukich said proudly.

He told Cole a lot of ideas have been discussed to keep Haley’s legacy alive. The most powerful: naming the regional medical school after him.

“Next year we will have our own medical students. I’ve been here a very long time, and every year I lobby for our own medical students. And most of the time that didn’t go over well. Finally, Leon Haley gets on board and manages to do that,” Vukich said.

Dr. Haley had a remarkable impact at UF Health and in the community of Jacksonville, especially during the pandemic.

Vukich said it’s been a tough week. They’re grieving someone they not only revered as a great leader, but a colleague and a friend.

Uniquely, they’ll have to find someone to fill both positions: Dean of the College of Medicine and CEO of the hospital.

“If I had a design, from scratch, the perfect individual he or she would look, act, smell, and have the experience, you know, of Leon Haley,” Vukich told Cole it will be no easy task to fill his shoes.

“I’ve had eight CEOs in my career and six deans, and some of them were real competitors--but he was the best of all of those people at both of those jobs. And he did it in remaining human,” the Chief Medical Officer said.

Right now, he said Dr. David Nelson is at UF Health to help out. He runs the healthcare operation for the entire University of Florida.

He was Dr. Haley’s supervisor.

“He will be naming a couple of people, by the end of this week to replace, on a short-term basis, interim, Dr. Haley. In this case we will split his position,” Vukich explained.

He told Cole these will be internal people who could serve for as long as a year, until the search for CEO is made.

“I could tell you from my own experience that it is not easy to go out and find somebody of his caliber,” Vukich said.

You can read more about Dr. Haley from UF health here.