In 2014, Dr. Richard Lange was named founding president of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso. The university has been pivotal in increasing El Pasoans’ health knowledge. Most recently, TTUHSC El Paso opened the Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine, the only school of its kind on the border.
El Paso Matters spoke with Lange about his reflections on 2021. The interview has been edited for length and style.
El Paso Matters: What’s one word you would use to describe 2021?
El Paso Matters: What have you learned about yourself this year as president of the university?
Lange: I learned about every leader on campus. Everybody talks about leadership and there are different kinds of leaders. But in the times when things are challenging, or there’s a crisis, or it’s just out of the ordinary, it requires leaders to coordinate, to communicate, to help cast a vision to make sure that we stay true to our mission. Not just a leader, it takes multiple leaders. All the clinical chairs that take care of patients during these challenging times or all the educators that have to change their curriculum and make sure that the students are successful.
El Paso Matters: What is a key lesson that you learned this year that you will take with you or remember for years to come?
Lange: Early on in the pandemic, we didn’t have vaccines, we didn’t have enough personal protective equipment, and we didn’t know a lot about the virus or how it spread. We spent a lot of time trying to figure this out and, oftentimes, with different entities. So I would talk to my chairs, or my deans, or the hospital CEOs, health care providers here in the area. And we decided Monday through Friday at 7 a.m., we would all get on a joint phone call together and share information. It usually took me three or four hours to prepare for that every night. We did that here in our community but also the Texas Tech (University) System’s presidents got on the phone to lead discussion about how to keep students in school safely. The “aha” moment for me was how incredibly important that half hour was. It saved me hours every day. It coordinated our efforts across the city and really did involve more than just the medical school.
El Paso Matters: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your own life?
Lange: It’s made me a better leader. Everything that we’re facing in the city, there isn’t a single thing that was easy about it. And coordinating everybody to work together requires a leader that listens, a leader that is able to assimilate the facts and distill it down so that it’s bite-sized, everybody can grab it and understand it and move in the same direction. And during that time, there were a lot of disparate opinions about what we ought to be doing and how we ought to be doing it. But how do you take all that and make sure that we are moving in the right direction as an educational institution, but also as a health care provider? I think it helped me rise to the occasion.
El Paso Matters: As an institution that is educating the next generation of nurses and doctors, what were some of the unique challenges that you had to think about in order for students to continue their education?
Lange: All the students had to have adequate PPE and you don’t necessarily have to do that in a college situation. But we’re talking about complete PPE.
A lot of places around the country were asking their students not to see COVID patients. We gave our students the opportunity. Take our nursing students, we asked them, “What do you want to get out of this situation?” Because we could have delayed their education a bit, maybe it would have been safer. And the students said, “We don’t want that. We want to be a part of the health care workforce and we’re not gonna be able to do that if we delay it. We need to know how to take care of these patients.”
We made sure our students had adequate testing available and we vaccinated everybody as quickly as we could. We made health care providers and students a priority, even at UTEP. We vaccinated UTEP pharmacy students because we knew their pharmacies were vaccinating their students and so we got them early on. And then having students continue to see patients in a way that was still safe with PPE. So there were a lot of things that we had to think about that maybe other schools didn’t have to.
El Paso Matters: What was a moment that made you feel proud?
Lange: This is going to sound very strange, but when I had a first-year dental student repair my tooth two weeks ago.
So there are two things. One, the dental school is the first dental school in the state of Texas in the last 50 years, and there are only 67 in the entire country. So to have it here in El Paso is phenomenal. Then we have the most innovative curriculum in the United States. Typically in dental school, you spend the first two years in books and don’t begin to see patients until your third year. We have an integrated education so students start seeing patients really early on.
About two weeks ago, I had a chipped tooth and the students had learned how to do restorative work. So I had my first-year students fixing, restoring and it’s only the first semester of the dental school. Not only was I most proud, but it’s funny because the students I heard were on their phones, texting their friends around the country, saying, “Look what I’m doing as a first-year student.”
El Paso Matters: What is a goal that you set for yourself next year?
Lange: I want to invest in my leadership team to advance their leadership skills. Leadership is incredibly important and if you have poor leadership, it does not serve you well in times of crisis.
From an educational standpoint, we’re always doing surveys to find out where we’re doing really well, and what things we need to improve. We’re increasing the residency programs to meet the professional health care shortage demands here, and we’re going to attract more of our students to train here.
El Paso Matters: What are you looking forward to most next year?
Lange: I’m looking forward to normalcy for the students. I have a group of first- and second-year medical students that don’t know what normal looks like. I spent time with them last week, and I said, “You’re in the most incredible time in medical history. I’ve been doing this for 40-plus years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. So you’re learning things that we’re learning on the fly.”
El Paso Matters: What do you want the community to know about you?
Lange: Our mission is to meet the needs of the community. We are a gem that belongs to El Paso. I know it says Texas Tech and Texas Tech is somewhere out in Lubbock, West Texas, but this health science center is in El Paso. I want them to know that our mission is to meet their needs.
Cover photo: Dr. Richard Lange, president of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, reflects on the institution’s role in the pandemic and on its growth into the new year. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)