BETHESDA -- In just a minute she'll be ready to sit down for an interview, promises Dr. Bernadine P. Healy, new director of the National Institutes of Health. Just one minute, but first there's something she has to do.
Sure, anyone can understand that. Here's a woman heading a $9 billion enterprise, directing the workings of 13 powerful individual institutes and seven other divisions, a woman with incessant demands upon her time and energy. Maybe the president is on the line. Maybe someone needs her input on a new strategy for curing cancer. Maybe she's consulting on the latest round of testing for possible AIDS vaccines.
Well, not exactly. In her decisive way, Dr. Healy strides across the NIH conference room, picks up a bouquet of withering flowers and heads for the trash. "Just let me get rid of these," she is muttering.
And when she is asked a short time later, just what is it that the director of the NIH does, Bernadine Healy doesn't miss a beat.
"I clean and tidy," she says, deadpan.
If this kind of self-deprecating assessment is likely to lead to not-very-complimentary conclusions about the impact of the first female director of the NIH -- indeed, the first woman to head any of the federal science agencies -- Dr. Healy, 46, throws fuel on the fire with subsequent comments.
"Remember, I wasn't the first choice for this job," she says. "I joke, they couldn't get a man to take the job."
Dr. Healy moved this spring into a position that had been unfilled for more than 18 months as several candidates met the offer to direct NIH with well-publicized turndowns. But she does not seem to have any problem with not being first choice. And by bringing up the topic herself, she effectively defuses the comments being bandied about only half facetiously, that the job went to a woman because no oneelse would take it.
"I think it's marvelous," she says. "I think women often take the dirty jobs. They can't get a man to do the job because it's not so glamorous, or it's not deemed powerful, so let some woman come in and do it -- they'll take a job nobody else wants."
Bernadine Healy -- one of four daughters of a Long Island perfume maker, the first in her family to go to college -- wanted the job, make no mistake about that.
"I think it's a fabulous job," says Dr. Healy, who worked in Baltimore from 1970 to 1984 as a resident, professor of medicine, assistant medical school dean and director of the Coronary Care Unit at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.
"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for anybody who believes in NIH, anybody who believes in biomedical research, anybody who believes in medicine."
All of which she believes in "passionately," a word she uses more than once to describe her commitment to the goals of NIH.
"NIH is about life," she says glowingly of the agency she directs. "NIH is about saving lives, preventing disease. It has a glorious and magnificent mission that touches positively the lives of every man, woman and child in this country."
Already Dr. Healy has made her impact felt on the 300-acre collegelike campus in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. With only "acting" leadership for the past 18 months, NIH was "adrift," Dr. Healy found when she came to the director's office in April after serving five years as chairman of the Research Institute of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
"Things got done on a daily basis; the process has a way of moving along," she describes. "But I don't think there was a sense of vigorous, strong forward motion. And I think all the institutes suffered."
Those working directly under her already see a turnaround. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, describes Dr. Healy as "an extremely energetic, pro-active kind of person, a we-can-do kind of person who clearly translates that attitude to everyone around her."
Dr. Fauci -- who turned down the NIH director job himself because of an unwillingness to give up his own laboratory work -- says of the NIH today, "This place is really hopping -- in a positive way. It is and will be a better place because of Dr. Healy."
In just a few months, agrees Dr. Samuel Broder, director of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Healy "has been able to revitalize, re-energize the NIH. She's been able to effectively establish the link that the purpose of the NIH is to reduce death and suffering for the American people. She's been able to put the stamp of her perspective on things faster than anyone else I can imagine."
And, Dr. Broder adds, "she's revolutionized the way that NIH will look at women's health."
He is referring to Dr. Healy's leadership in establishing a new $500 million Women's Health Initiative that will take a transinstitutional approach in studying health problems of American women. Dr. Broder calls the initiative "a very positive, dramatic step."
Outsiders, too, praise Dr. Healy's appointment and her efforts so far.