A family medicine champion for West Texas

A profile of Texas Family Physician of the Year, Ron Cook, DO, MBA

By Jonathan Nelson
May 24, 2024

Up in Lubbock, Texas, there’s a family doctor you’d be fortunate to meet. You’d probably find him wearing a white coat, a bow tie, a quick smile, full of kindness. He’s driven by an insatiable curiosity and the will and energy to try just about anything that involves learning, serving, and helping people heal. Although he has his hands in nearly every aspect of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, he never seems too busy to greet a family in the halls of the hospital and guide them through the right doors when they’re lost, or to stop and chat with you about whatever’s on your mind.

“He leads with a soft voice and a strong example,” says one colleague. “He will stay and talk about what is really going on with you and with him — and laugh. He loves to laugh.”

His name is Ron Cook, DO, MBA, and he is the 2023 Texas Family Physician of the Year.  

Dr. Cook has been in Lubbock at TTUHSC since he entered his first year of residency in 1993. In 2012, he was named the Braddock Chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine, where he is also a tenured professor. In the fall of 2023, he became the medical school’s chief health officer, a position that allows him to focus on institutional wellness across all TTUHSC campuses: Lubbock, Dallas, Amarillo, and the Permian Basin. Together, the system’s vast catchment area stretches from the Panhandle to the Big Bend, encompassing all of West Texas and a fair amount of Eastern New Mexico.

“We are the largest acceptance center between Dallas-Fort Worth and Albuquerque,” he says. “Our whole goal is to provide physicians for West Texas, and we’ve done that, … the school of medicine has done an excellent job in doing that. That’s been the fun part, just watching people grow and doing our mission for the school and the health sciences center.”

As if that weren’t enough, Dr. Cook’s influence spreads far beyond the hospitals, clinics, and exam rooms of West Texas. As his longtime friend and fellow Red Raider, Rodney Young, MD, puts it, “He’s an exceptional family physician, key public health official, instrumental academic leader, inspiring mentor and colleague, dedicated family man, and a dear friend to so many.”

It was Cook’s role as a “key public health official” that thrust him into the limelight when COVID-19 shocked the world.

He had been serving as the health authority for the city of Lubbock since 2009, and in 2015, he was appointed medical director of the Lubbock Health Department.

“That was back when we were talking about whether we should have Coke vending machines, soda pop and that sort of thing in schools,” he says.

On March 17, 2020, he was out on the tarmac at Lubbock Preston Smith International Airport participating in an emergency drill when the call came in. Lubbock had confirmed its first case of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

“I was standing on a runway with a bunch of moulage patients — fake patients lying around, ambulances everywhere.”

At 7:30 p.m., he joined a team of local officials to speak at a press conference, one of approximately 60 he would be part of in the coming months. When you add in other television, newspaper, and radio interviews, he did nearly 100 media spots on the pandemic.

“A seemingly never-ending barrage of questions, decisions, meetings, and media interviews were part and parcel of his service,” Young wrote in a letter nominating Cook for the award. “He handled them with skill, confidence, and equanimity that gave comfort and hope in uncertain times to the people of Lubbock and the South Plains.”

In an April 2020 press conference conducted on Zoom, Dr. Cook described the concept of asymptomatic carriers, and in doing so, he coined a phrase that caught fire in the community.

“In other words, they don’t know they have the virus because they don’t have any symptoms.... The one thing I want you to hear today is that virus ain’t got legs. It only uses your legs to get to somebody else. Please don’t stop social distancing.”

The next thing you know, someone on the city council had T-shirts made with the slogan “Virus Ain’t Got Legs” in bold condensed capital letters and gave them to everyone in the clinic.

Cook was wearing his when he and other front-line providers got their first shot of the vaccine. That was an emotional day at University Medical Center.

“People were dying — I personally lost a number of my own patients to COVID prior to the vaccine, and I was one of the first handful in Lubbock to get a dose…. People were crying and choked up. It just felt like, ‘finally, something to stop the death and dying.’”

He has a look of wonder when he describes how his community came together to keep providing care throughout the worst months of the pandemic, overcoming obstacles with ingenuity and comradery. Physicians and every other member of the health care team remember running out of personal protection equipment. The scramble was on.

“Our face masks are single-patient-use — disposable — but we didn’t have enough, so we were wearing them all day long,” he says. Various schools from the university cooperated to set up shipping containers outside the hospital to sterilize used PPE with hydrogen peroxide gas to be used again.

There weren’t enough face shields, so the engineering students used the school’s 3D printers to make frames. Cook reached out to a friend who worked in plastics for an oil company in Houston.

“He called his buddies, and they shipped us … these 6-foot-wide, 400-pound rolls of clear plastic, and we cut them out and made shields out of them.” They punched holes in the shields and put them on the frames.

“And that’s just one of my stories. There’s all kinds of these stories all over West Texas.”

In June 2020, Mayor Dan Pope and Lubbock City Council members presented Cook with a special recognition for, “his professionalism, knowledge, hard work, dedication, and superior communication skills in helping the City of Lubbock, the City Health Department, and the general public stay informed, monitor the outbreak, and advise all residents on the best course of action to stay safe and healthy during the COVID-19 outbreak within our city.”

When Cook accepted the Texas Family Physician of the Year Award in November 2023, at TAFP’s Annual Session and Primary Care Summit, he thanked his family, his coworkers, and the public health team in Lubbock he worked with during the pandemic.

“That was a lot of work, but we just showed up to do our work. That’s just what we do as family physicians, and who better to do it? Who better to lead than those of us who have this broad training that can do anything and everything that you ask us to do?”

Dr. Cook sits with his wife, Michelle Cook, in Lubbock, Texas.

When he was in third grade in Odessa where he was raised, Cook drew a picture of a doctor with a stethoscope and a head mirror. On the back, he wrote, “I like doctor shows. I think they need me.” It hangs framed in his office to remind him where he came from. Even then he was fascinated by the human body, as he still is today.

“It’s an amazing piece of work that God created. The more we learn, the less we know about the human body.”

His first merit badge as a Boy Scout was the First Aid badge. His Eagle Scout project was teaching lifesaving.

Dr. Cook’s childhood drawing hangs in his office.

He got his first job as a senior in high school, working in the emergency room at Medical Center Hospital in Odessa. He worked nights while attending a year at Odessa College, then he transferred to Texas Tech, took an EMT class, and signed on with the Lubbock EMS.

He worked as a paramedic throughout the rest of his undergraduate years. The EMS department eventually purchased a fixed-wing air ambulance and Cook became a flight medic. He loved flying — says he would have been a pilot if not for wanting to be a doctor so badly. He says saving lives was “way more fun than studying calculus,” and with the prospect of medical school on the line, he entered grad school in pursuit of his first master’s to “improve my grade point average.” The subject? Parasitology.

Many years later, he would earn an MBA, but that’s another story.

While teaching undergraduate students about tapeworms and the like, he discovered a passion for teaching. He was, after all, the son of teachers. And all the while, he was taking regular shifts as a paramedic and flight medic.

When the time came to choose, he chose medicine, moved to Fort Worth and attended the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“I wanted to do it all,” he exclaims. “Why stop along the way when you can go all the way?”

“Ron’s biggest problem is he is the most curious person I’ve ever known,” says Michelle, his wife of 37 years. She was pregnant with their first son when they moved to Fort Worth, and when they went back to Lubbock for residency, their second son was only a few weeks old. Now they have two grandchildren: a boy and a girl.

Matching to family medicine wasn’t Cook’s first choice — emergency medicine or obstetrics were what he thought he wanted — but the match didn’t go his way and by a stroke of luck, he scrambled into an open spot at the family medicine residency at Texas Tech.

“It was a godsend.”

When the time came to choose again, he chose academia over private practice and never looked back. He took an assistant professor position in the department he would come to chair.

“When I talk to graduating residents, I tell them when you go to your community, say ‘yes.’ Just say ‘yes.’ … ‘Yes’ will open more doors than ‘no’ will.”

It’s a philosophy that’s served him well.

“Dr. Cook represents the very founding of our specialty, truly living the values to which we all aspire in the biopsychosocial model.”

Dr. Cook’s curriculum vitae is 34 pages long and jam packed with accolades, far too many to list. In the past few years, he’s won three of TTUHSC’s President’s Excellence awards and the President’s Outstanding Clinician Award. In 2021, he won the Paul Harris Fellow Award from the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International, “in appreciation of tangible and significant assistance given for the furtherance of better understanding and friendly relations among peoples around the world.”

But of all his awards and accomplishments, he is most proud of being part of the team that developed the Family Medicine Accelerated Track at TTUHSC. Enrollees in the program pursue a rigorous curriculum culminating in an MD degree in three years instead of four. In return, graduates of the program agree to complete family medicine residency training in the TTUHSC system.

It was the first such program in the country. There are now 33 medical schools in the Consortium of Accelerated Medical Pathway Programs, of which TTUHSC is a founding member.

The first FMAT class at Tech entered in 2010 and graduated in 2013. To date, there have been 137 enrollees with 32 medical students currently in the program. Fifty-six family physicians have completed the program and residency training, and the program has a 78% completion rate.

“Here’s the big bang for the buck,” Cook says. “86% of our graduates have stayed in Texas, 73% have stayed in rural or underserved areas, and 66% of those have stayed in West Texas.”

Considering the shortage of primary care physicians in rural communities across Texas, this program is an unmitigated success. Students selecting the accelerated program when applying for medical school complete a supplemental application with questions about their interest in the program. Cook says they look for applicants from rural communities or those who want to go to rural communities.

“We train people to be country docs, to do all sorts of things, to take care of 95% of the stuff that walks into their office. And for the other 5%, they can stabilize it and ship them to a higher level of care. That’s our job.”

Part of that 95% is maternity care, and training family physicians in obstetrics has long been a passion and a goal of Cook’s.

The current interim chair of the TTUHSC Department of Family and Community Medicine is Charla Allen, MD, MEd. She also attended medical school and residency at Tech. In her nomination letter recommending Cook for the award, she mentioned that she had been privileged to deliver Ron and Michelle’s first grandson.

“I can’t help but think about the fact that without Dr. Cook’s dedication to family medicine and obstetrics in family medicine, that would not have been possible,” she wrote. “He led the charge to grow our program and made sure we had privileges to deliver babies so we could teach our residents fully.”

Dr. Cook receives the Texas Family Physician of the Year Award from TAFP President Emily Briggs, MD, MPH.

Dr. Young, a fellow Texas Family Physician of the Year from a few years back, first met Cook when he was an associate residency director and Young was a resident. Young, who now serves as regional chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at TTUHSC School of Medicine in Amarillo, says the relationship they struck planted the seeds of his own future academic career, as well as a lifelong friendship.

“As a resident, I especially enjoyed working with Dr. Cook as my attending physician,” he wrote. “He has a warm and approachable demeanor and an inclusive style that makes everyone know they are a valued part of our team. Those same traits endear him to his patients and put them at ease in his care, allowing him to communicate confusing medical concepts in plain, understandable terms.”

Cook has maintained a large and loyal panel of patients throughout his career. He loves being part of their lives, in good times and bad, getting to see what their kids do.

“That’s the fun part of family medicine, because you’re part of their family.”

A friend and colleague of more than 20 years, Timothy Benton, MD, calls Cook the quintessential role model of a family physician. Benton serves as regional chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine in the Permian Basin at TTUHSC in Odessa. “Dr. Cook represents the very founding of our specialty, truly living the values to which we all aspire in the biopsychosocial model,” he wrote in a nomination letter.

When Dr. Cook accepted his award, he took the opportunity to provide his favorite advice to medical students and residents in the audience: say “yes” more than “no.” He closed by thanking his patients.

“I have patients that I have had since I was a resident 30 years ago, and I love them dearly. I’ve been to funerals, I’ve been to weddings. I’ve given funerals, I’ve given weddings to these people, and we’re just part of the family.… And thanks to the God above, my father in Heaven, who gave me the curiosity to do what I do.”

Congratulations, Dr. Cook, our Texas Family Physician of the Year. May your curiosity never fade.