July 2018
From the State Vet's Office

Diagnostic Laboratory Director Retires

Dr. David Pugh leaves far-reaching positives in his wake.

Sometimes, I think trying to summarize or describe what a person has meant to me is diminished by my inadequate attempt to express my feelings. Nevertheless, I am going to give it a try. I have had the privilege to work with many people over the past few years who I can say I have been honored to be associated with. That is the case with Dr. David Pugh, retiring Director of the Alabama Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System. About the time this article hits your mailbox, Pugh will be officially retired. He has only been with our lab for a little over four years, but his leadership was critical to our lab system’s not only surviving but reaching some impressive milestones. I believe someday that, after I have retired and look back at my career as State Veterinarian, having been able to hire Pugh as director of the laboratory system will have been one of the accomplishments I will be most proud of.

In early 2012, Dr. Fred Hoerr retired after 31 years as Director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System. I learned a lot from Hoerr and pretty much never lost sleep over lab issues.

Along about the time he retired, we were dealing with serious budget cuts causing us to work with a greatly reduced staff at the lab. It was like we were having to walk to school … 5 miles uphill both there and back … in the snow every day … barefooted. Sometimes just getting the work out was a challenge as many of the lab personnel were wearing multiple hats. One of those was Dr. Sara Rowe. She was not only head of the serology and microbiology labs but was also holding the position of interim lab director.

It is significant to note that we were dealing with budget cuts. I interviewed several potential lab directors, but, uniformly, they were scared away by having to deal with budget cuts and reduced staff. That is not a great hand to be dealt, so not many people are going to walk into a situation with a handful of negatives to deal with right off the bat. And it was certainly unreasonable to ask Rowe to fix things that had occurred due to budget cuts, while still performing her regular assigned duties.

And all of this was going on at a time when the threats of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and avian influenza were knocking at our door.

Then one day, it was kind of like a "Saul on the Road to Damascus" experience. I realized I didn’t have to hire someone with a laboratory background. I needed someone who had the ability to lead us through the wilderness and at the same time prepare us to go through the second round of accreditation. Accreditation requires showing the reviewers that your lab has achieved a difficult-to-maintain level of excellence.

No wonder I was having a difficult time selling the position to potential candidates.

When I realized I didn’t have to have a "lab person" in the position of director, there was only one person I considered. I had known Pugh since he came to the Auburn College of Veterinary Medicine in 1990. I knew that, as a veterinarian in private practice, a professor, a technical service veterinarian for Fort Dodge and Pfizer, and the Project Veterinarian and Director of Operations for the Auburn Equine Plasma Project, he had not only succeeded but excelled. As I looked into his resume, I realized he had whatever the "it" factor is that one needs to be successful, passionate and demand perfection. I figured he had been in the arena enough and had probably dealt with enough adversity that he could deal with our issues, even if it did require pulling an occasional rabbit out of his hat.

I suppose Pugh may look at me as a bit of a snake oil salesman, but it was certainly a good day when he agreed to take the position as lab director.

One of the key issues we had to deal with was to improve turnaround time for reporting results to the veterinarians and producers who were submitting samples or carcasses to us. When you must cut key staff members, something is bound to suffer. I am happy that quality never suffered. However, being able to get the tests completed and getting reports out in a timely manner is critical to a successful lab.

Pugh took over and began focusing on improving getting the reports out quickly and filling the critical staff positions the budget cuts had taken away.

As time went on, he was able to not only "put out fires" but also build and move in a positive direction.

With Pugh’s leadership, the Auburn lab passed the reaccreditation process and the Boaz lab received full accreditation. Also, the Hanceville lab will be going through that process, soon followed by the Elba lab.

Accreditation in and of itself is a tedious process and requires a tremendous amount of attention and focus, while still performing the everyday duties of the labs. Accreditation is a big deal. If you bring up the subject with Pugh, he downplays his role in the whole thing. He is quick to give credit to those who were the boots on the ground, the workers in the labs.

One other thing I want to mention about Pugh before we close this chapter and move on: He cared about the workers under his supervision. He always wanted the best for them. He encouraged those who could qualify for a promotion or better position to apply for it. Then he would call me weekly to see what we could do to accommodate those promotions. The lab personnel were like family to him. We could talk about the shortcomings of the lab, but you had sure better not say anything negative about the workers to the outside world. He vigorously stood up for his workers. He didn’t refer to them as subordinates. He truly felt like the person emptying the garbage cans was as important to the success of the lab as his Ph.D. pathologists.

Pugh did right by me. I wish I had more superlatives in my bag of words to do him right. He came at a difficult time and dealt with difficult circumstances. We still aren’t rolling in money but there is some improvement.

As the very capable Dr. Heather Walz takes the baton from Pugh and assumes the position of director, the hill is not as steep to climb as it was for her predecessor.

Dr. David Pugh, thanks for literally putting your blood, sweat and tears into the Alabama Veterinary Lab System. We are all better because of it.

Godspeed in retirement, my friend.




Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama. You can contact him at 334-240-7253.