Dr. Leonel Vela takes reins as regional dean

U. T. system Regents approve design of Harlingen building


Leonel Vela, M.D., M.P.H.
Leonel Vela, M.D., M.P.H.
The year 2000 ushered in more than the new century for the Health Science Center and the Regional Academic Health Center in the South Texas/Border Region. 

The Medical School gained a regional dean, and a building was designed to house the Harlingen Medical Education Division of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC).

A nationwide search last year culminated in the March 1 arrival of Leonel Vela, M.D., M.P.H., as dean for the RAHC, and The University of Texas System Board of Regents approved the design of the center's Medical Education Building. Total project cost of the 94,000-square-foot building is $25 million. HOK/BFW, L.L.C., of Houston is the designer-builder. The Medical Education Division is expected to be fully operational by mid-2002. 

Dr. Vela, who will be based in the new building, said it "represents a solidifying of the partnership and the commitment between the Valley community and the Health Science Center."

The Harlingen Medical Education Division of the Regional Academic Health Center will support increased clinical training of medical professionals in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The Health Science Center's Medical School will operate this division and a RAHC Research Division to be constructed later in Edinburg. 

"The RAHC building will be a magnificent structure that will make an emphatic statement to the community," said James J. Young, Ph.D., the recently retired Medical School dean who oversaw creation of the RAHC and the hiring of Dr. Vela. "It will tell them that medical education is important, that partnership between the university and the community is important, and that opportunity for improvement in health in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is important."

RAHC clinical teaching facilities will be provided by Valley Baptist Medical Center, a major teaching hospital, and Su Clinica Familiar, a major ambulatory clinic. Both of these facilities will be within walking distance of the new RAHC building. 

Artist's rendering of new RAHC buildingThe University of Texas System Board of Regents approved the design of the Harlingen Medical Education Division of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC). The 94,000-square-foot building is expected to be fully operational by mid-2002.

The RAHC building design includes an auditorium and state-of-the-art library, teaching rooms, clinical simulation centers, clinical assessment areas and faculty office space. The library will be linked to the Dolph Briscoe Jr. Library at the Health Science Center and will offer access to all of its library reference search engines. Students and faculty will be able to use the same library resources their counterparts in San Antonio enjoy. 

The auditorium will enable the center to offer educational programs and to invite state and national speakers of interest to the health care community and, on occasion, the public. "This building will be inviting and open," Dr. Vela said. "It's a design that gives one a very distinct impression that it embraces the community."

The Stanford- and Harvard-trained Dr. Vela most recently was vice president for rural and community health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and occupied the Marie Hall Chair in Rural Health. He was associate professor of family and community medicine and medical director of the Center for TeleMedicine/TeleHealth at Texas Tech. He is a native of Pharr, just east of McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley, and is a graduate of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District. His wife, Alicia Cruz Vela, is from Harlingen.

"Dr. Vela is returning to his roots," Dr. Young said. "Not only is he from the Valley, but he formerly served as regional medical director in Harlingen for the Texas Department of Health from 1992 to 1997. He understands health and education issues associated with the region. The citizens of the South Texas/Border Region will benefit from his talents. Our search committee is to be applauded for recommending the right person at the right time to do the right job."

Dr. Vela is highly respected in academic medicine, said John P. Howe, III, M.D., president of the Health Science Center. "His impressive background includes undergraduate degrees from Stanford, a medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine and a Master of Public Health degree from Harvard University," Dr. Howe said. "His dedication to improving the health of this region and this state has been evident throughout his entire career, and his qualities of leadership, academic excellence and concern about border health issues make him an ideal person to lead this latest Health Science Center outreach initiative."

Dr. Vela received a Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology from Stanford in 1978 with a concurrent Bachelor of Arts in psychology. In 1983 he completed his M.D. at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Harvard conferred on him the M.P.H. degree in 1987. He was the Kellogg Fellow in Health Policy and Management at Harvard in 1986.

His many accomplishments include completion of a Texas Department of Health preventive medicine/public health residency program in 1993 and selection as a National Institutes of Mental Health/American Psychological Association Minority Fellow in 1989. Earlier this year, he was honored with the Plate of Bounty Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Migrant Head Start Branch.

Among his state and national appointments, Dr. Vela has served on the Governor's Border Working Group Health Subcommittee and on the South Texas Health Education Committee. He chaired the Lower Rio Grande Valley Diabetes Task Force and the Texas Medical Association's Task Force on Border Tuberculosis Curriculum. The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services recently appointed him to chair the National Advisory Council on Migrant Health.

Dr. Vela is a board-certified Diplomat of the American Board of Preventive Medicine. He did post-doctoral training in child psychiatry and neurology at the Children's Psychiatric Unit in Austin in 1988-89 and other specialized medical training in sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, epidemiology and preventive medicine.


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