A health-y relationship

Drs. Robert and Sherlita Amler. Photograph by Bob Rozycki.
Drs. Robert and Sherlita Amler. Photograph by Bob Rozycki.

When Sherlita or Robert Amler needs a medical consultation, they don’t have to look very far.

After all, they can just glance over a table in their Southeast home.

The noted doctors – she is the commissioner of health for Westchester County and he is a vice president, dean and professor at New York Medical College – are nationally recognized figures who have managed to combine high-powered careers in public health with a 15-year marriage.

“It’s natural,” Sherlita says. “We do the same things. It’s so nice.”

The shop talk, they assure, is never a breach of privacy but rather discussing approaches to issues and medical advances. That combination of having common ground and a trusted sounding board works … to a point.

“I don’t tell her how to run the health department,” he says with a smile.

“And I don’t tell him how to run the college,” she adds with a laugh.

SUCCESSFUL OPERATION

The couple had quite different paths to landing eventually in the Hudson Valley.

Robert grew up in Manhattan and went to New York public schools, including The Bronx High School of Science, where at 15 he says he “totally fell in love with biochemistry.”

“I was a real nerd,” he says with another laugh.

Medical training would begin at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and continue in New Jersey and Atlanta, with an MBA from New York University secured along the way.

Sherlita grew up in a military family that was constantly relocating.

“I thought you cleaned your house by moving,” she says.

The constant readjusting, though, led her to be able to talk to anyone, which she says serves her well today.

Through their careers, each has completed an incredible amount of traveling, from heading on-site to investigate outbreaks to presenting lectures and the like.

Being notable in the same field, sometimes doing similar work or attending the same conferences and events, the Amlers “sort of knew about each other,” Sherlita says.

They were, though, based in different parts of the country when they began seeing each other, so their early years together were indeed as commuter couple.

Robert was in Russia on a project when he was asked to come to post-9/11 New York for chemical and biological work.

“My background is – beyond pediatrics – has really been disaster medicine,” he says. “It sounds kind of exciting but it was very serious at the time.”

Sherlita was in Atlanta. “I had a job I really liked so I didn’t want to give up my job.”

When Robert heard Putnam County was adding a health commissioner – also in the wake of 9/11 – “I encouraged her to look into that position.”

Soon, they were both at home, together.

SCHOOL DAYS

At New York Medical College in Valhalla, which he joined in 2005, Robert is the dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice and Institute of Public Health and vice president for government affairs. He is also professor of public health, pediatrics and environmental health science. Previously, he was regional health administrator and commanding officer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; a commissioned officer for the U.S. Public Health Service, on active duty; and chief medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Oh, and he remains a practicing pediatrician.

Robert, who received the Doctor of Distinction Award from the Westchester County Business Journal (WAG’s sister publication) and the Westchester Medical Society last year, is also a co-founder of BioInc@NYMC, a biotechnology incubator unveiled on campus in late October.

From developing apps to vaccines to new devices, this new venture also, Robert says, is “a way of bringing more business to Westchester and New York state.”

MADAME COMMISSIONER

Equally, Sherlita has a varied to-do list.

“I never have a typical day,” she says. “It’s whatever the disease du jour is.”

Sherlita, who mainly works out of an office in Mount Kisco, has also long been committed to her field.

“I love public health,” she says. “It’s what I’ve done most of my life.”

That includes her earliest days as a health inspector to becoming a registered nurse through study at Arkansas State University to then going on to become a pediatrician.

As the commissioner of health at Westchester County, Sherlita in now in her fourth year as the chief executive and chief medical officer for the Westchester County Department of Health (and is also acting Community Mental Health Commissioner).

Her role, she says, is “making people live healthier and longer.”

Prior to being named by Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino to the position, Sherlita was Putnam County’s Commissioner of Health from 2004 until 2011.

“I loved my time in Putnam. It was small enough that it was like a family.”

In Westchester, her duties are similar though she is dealing with a much larger population.

“Basically it’s the same thing, just magnified by 10.”

Robert will say “Sherlita is way too modest,” and give a quick rundown of her varied experiences leading up to becoming Putnam County’s first health commissioner.

Prior to that she was a medical officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry in Atlanta.

She is also a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College and a distinguished lecturer and senior fellow at the Center for Disaster Medicine at the school.

Becoming a commissioner has brought a different kind of reward.

At the CDC, she says, “It’s very ethereal… It’s not actual boots on the ground kind of work.”

Studies might take decades.

Now, Sherlita says, “I get to see the results… There’s just a lot of satisfaction in knowing you keep the community –not just me, the team – but you keep the community safe.”

Of course, she says, these days the Ebola virus is on everyone’s mind.

“It is scary,” Sherlita says, but “We want people to understand what their real risk is, not their perceived risk.”

And, she says, she remains on call to teach at the medical college when needed.

“I think what I bring when I come to the school is ‘This is how it’s done in the real world,’” with ready examples.

“People don’t really understand public health,” she says. “We prevent things from happening. How do you put a value on things not happening? … The people we help largely don’t even know.”

In summary, she says, “We’re all about preventing disease.”

More recently, that has also included a reaction to a very real need, training first responders to use Narcan, the overdose antidote administered by a nasal spray.

“Public health has to change as the community changes and as the needs of the community change,” Sherlita says.
FAMILY TIME

Taking careers in medicine and combining them with public health has been more than rewarding, and the Amlers say they hope to inspire their own family members.

Between the two, the Amlers have six children, three of whom are married, and six granddaughters.

“In our family, we say, ‘You can be any kind of doctor you want to be,’” Sherlita says with a laugh.

The Amlers do take time for each other, recognizing it’s important to keep that husband-and-wife connection strong.

“It’s nice to have that support,” Sherlita says, adding their connection runs deep. “We liked each other before we loved each other.”

What seems to work so well for the couple is each fully understands the nature of the other’s specific job.

“When you both work long hours, it’s not like one person’s waiting at home for the other person to show up,” Sherlita says.

Often, they meet up at the same events.

“It’s like ‘I know you,’” Sherlita says.

Is there an ongoing challenge to their fast-paced life?

“Keeping track of the calendar, I would say,” Robert replies. “Time is more valuable than anything else. Everybody needs a few days. We try to take advantage.”

It might be a trip to see grandchildren, a drive to appreciate the autumn leaves or a getaway to Italy.

Work, though, is never far from their thoughts.

And for the Amlers, satisfaction in a job well done is not enough.

“When you get to our point in our careers, what we do now is we mentor,” Sherlita says. “We’ve loved this profession so we have to transfer the passion we have for this field to the next generation.”

Something they clearly do – together.

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