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UF Health Jacksonville CEO Leon Haley killed in personal watercraft accident in South Florida

He was wearing a life jacket and was taken to St. Mary's Hospital in West Palm Beach, but died from his injuries, according to the report.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Dr. Leon L. Haley Jr., CEO of UF Health Jacksonville, who was as lauded for his leading role in the city's COVID-19 response as he was for his approachable manner among the hospital's thousands of employees, died suddenly Saturday.

He was 56.

Dr. Haley was ejected from a personal watercraft in Palm Beach Inlet, reported WPTV West Palm Beach, citing the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He was wearing a life jacket and was taken to St. Mary's Hospital in West Palm Beach, but died from his injuries, according to the report.

More:UF Health Jacksonville CEO dies: Dr. Leon Haley Jr. led area's COVID-19 response

More:UF Health Jacksonville finding widespread vaccine hesitancy among its own staff

Haley had a daughter, Nichelle, and two sons, Wesley and Grant, a cornerback for the New Orleans Saints.

As word of his death spread over the weekend, professional and personal accolades poured in on social media. City officials and fellow hospital leaders called him a visionary leader, devastated employees called him a kind, supportive boss.

"Jacksonville’s healthcare community was struck by a bolt of lightning," former state Rep. Mia Jones, who now runs Agape Community Health Center, said on Facebook. "He was small in stature but large in wisdom and commitment to leading Jacksonville through this COVID pandemic. He led by example and he will be missed. … Rest well sir, your work is done."

In December 2020, UF Health Jacksonville was the first local hospital to receive shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Haley, a physician, was the first in line there to get the shot.

He and other hospital CEOs met regularly with Mayor Lenny Curry and collaborated on pandemic response and encouraging the public to get the vaccine.

More:Jacksonville hospitals put aside competition, joined together in fight against COVID-19

"Dr. Haley meant so much to so many people and to Jacksonville," Curry said on Twitter. "Losing him is tragic and painful. I’m praying for his family. I always enjoyed our professional interactions but really enjoyed him as a person. We often talked about our families."

Baptist Health CEO Michael Mayo said on Twitter that he was "very saddened at the loss" of a friend and colleague. "His passing is not only a personal loss but a huge loss to our friends at UF Health and to the greater Jacksonville community. I celebrated his life and his friendship," Mayo said.

Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville said Dr. Haley's death was a "devastating loss."

"His work as a physician and a community leader is a shining example that we should all seek emulate. The good that he has done here in Jacksonville will live on, long after his death," he said.

Andrew Schmidt, an emergency medicine physician at UF Health Jacksonville, said Dr. Haley was a "true rock star doctor."

"I have … always felt bad for the other hospitals because they didn't have a man like Leon Haley at the helm," he wrote on Facebook. "When most systems are being run primarily as a business and secondarily as a place of care, Dr. Haley … really gave a damn about the health of the community and keeping the focus of the hospital on high quality care.

"You would be very hard pressed to find another hospital CEO who spent as much time in the emergency department, getting to know staff and helping to educate residents. With the disconnect that many medical professionals feel between the 'C Suite' and the folks actually providing care, he was our secret weapon," Schmidt said. "Our city, despite its continued issues with controlling COVID, owes a lot to Dr. Haley for keeping the issues of infection control and vaccination at the forefront."

Even people who only observed his work were impacted.

"I never had the opportunity to meet this man," Winston A. Seabrooks said on Twitter, "but … to be a young man growing up in this city and watch an upstanding well-educated Black man lead the top trauma hospital in the state exemplify leadership the way he did was enough for me to see and take notes of what to be."

Dr. Haley first joined UF Health Jacksonville as dean of the University of Florida College of Medicine-Jacksonville in January 2017. Then-UF Health president David Guzick told the search committee he wanted “"a walk on water kind of a person" for the dean position.

When Dr. Haley was named CEO a year later, Guzick said, “Dr. Haley does embody all of these qualities ... In less than a year, he has brought such positive energy and expertise to the college that we felt it made perfect sense to have him lead this great organization, a model that follows how many other academic health centers are structured.”

Dr. Haley came to Jacksonville from Atlanta where he was executive associate dean of the Emory School of Medicine and deputy senior vice president of medical affairs at Grady Memorial Hospital. Like UF Health Jacksonville, Grady is both an academic center and a safety-net hospital.

A native of Pittsburgh, Haley earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown University and his medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Growing up, he told the Times-Union in 2017, he wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. But he decided his personality was better suited to being an emergency physician.

"I liked the unknown, I liked the variety of it," he said. "Every shift was a new day."

He obtained a master’s degree in health administration from the University of Michigan and completed his residency in emergency medicine at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, before being recruited to serve as chief of emergency medicine at Grady Memorial.

Beth Reese Cravey: bcravey@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4109

You can read more from our partners at the Florida Times-Union.

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