Eight years ago, when the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer offered a New York-based medical director’s job to Warachal Eileen Faison, MD, she got advice that boiled down to this: Don’t do it.
She was then clinical director of Alzheimer’s research and clinical programs at the Medical University of South Carolina and a leader of that state’s Alzheimer’s advocacy community.
“My mentors said, ‘Warachal, everybody has a career itch, but you need to stay in Charleston,’” she recalls. Ultimately she didn’t listen—and isn’t sorry. She cites simple statistics: There were roughly 70,000 people with the disease in South Carolina—versus 5 million nationwide.
“Working with Pfizer allowed me to increase my reach,” says Faison, “and that’s what was important to me as a physician.”
While some who “go corporate” find themselves suddenly missing the decisive clinical control and independence they had, a geriatric psychiatrist like Faison is well acquainted with the boundaries of hope and the need for help.
“It’s not going to be a quick fix,” she says of the fight against Alzheimer’s. “It’s not always easy, but we work collaboratively.”
As a medical director, Faison, 49, is charged with providing expertise on women’s and men’s health as well as Alzheimer’s. As part of a team that oversees the development of clinical trials, she helps to determine “what endpoints are clinically meaningful.” She, in collaboration with many colleagues within the organization, supervises the development of safety and effectiveness data, and reviews the performance of drugs even after they’ve been approved.
“I’ve always felt that as a medical director I’ve had tremendous influence,” she says, “because I bring the patient’s voice into the room.”
In 2013, Faison did a three-month global health fellowship in China as a Pfizer-backed corporate volunteer with the not-for-profit GBC Health, working on a diabetes initiative. And she’s active in helping to guide Pfizer’s “Get Healthy, Stay Healthy” program, which gives consumers information to empower them to “appropriately dialogue with their health care team and get their questions answered.” A communicator to both internal and external audiences, Faison works with colleagues on both physician and patient education materials, helping to ensure that “the science is appropriately represented.”
Faison grew up in the town of Warsaw, N.C., population just over 3,000, about 70 miles southeast of Raleigh. Her unusual first name comes from a melding of father’s first name, Walter, and Juan Marichal, a star pitcher for the San Francisco Giants in the ’60s. She recalls occasionally chafing at being a teachers’ child—on a family car ride, for example. “From the front seat my mother would say, ‘Warachal, look up in the sky. What kind of cloud is that?’ It was a little overwhelming.”
But, good thing, the parental influence won out. Faison earned her medical degree and did her residency at the University of North Carolina. Having just finished her service to the board of the American Association of Community Physicians after 18 years, today she adds luster to her employer’s medical cred by serving as a member of the executive council of the Association of Women Psychiatrists and as an adviser to the DSM-V Workgroup on Neurocognitive Disorders and Lifespan Study Group. Faison says Charleston remains a kind of second home, and she makes frequent trips back to the city to assist the South Carolina Alzheimer’s Association chapter.
This medical director escapes some of the headaches—and misses some of the triumphs—of her counterparts in health systems and plans. But so far, the pharma sector seems to offer Faison the right niche from which to fight an illness that ravages the elderly population and challenges science.