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Silhouettes Profiles Dr. Jose Lezama

Dr. Jose Lezama

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 3, 2017 edition of La Gaceta

By: Tiffany Razzano

One of Dr. Jose Lezama’s greatest inspirations throughout his career has been his late paternal grandmother, Martha Lezama.
Though she wasn’t in the medical field – she was a teacher of elementary-aged students at the Academy of the Holy Names – she still had a significant impact on the chief of medical service at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.
Though he didn’t attend the Academy, he vividly recalls visiting her classroom. “I loved watching her teach,” he said. “I never saw anybody love her job as much as she did. She had so much energy about her and enthusiasm. She loved what she did.”
This enthusiasm inspired her grandson, who for a while thought he might want to be a teacher himself. But as a student at Tampa’s Jesuit High School, he fell in love with science and pursued a career in medicine.
It’s because of his grandmother’s early influence that Lezama carved a niche for himself in his chosen field that allows him to meld medicine with teaching. In addition to his work at the VA, he’s also a professor of medicine and vice chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine. “I was very lucky to create this niche in my medical career,” he said. “I enjoy teaching and nurturing medical students, attendings and fellows. One of the most important things I teach them is how to be humanistic and members of the community wherever they practice.”
At USF, he’s come across students who actually had his grandmother as a teacher during their elementary school years. “They tell me I have an eerily similar teaching style to her,” he stated. “That’s an honor to me.”
After graduating from Jesuit, Lezama went on to the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he took a pre-med track within the university’s honors program and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and cell science.
At that point, he knew he wanted to have a career in medicine, but he wasn’t thinking about what his specialty might be. Instead, he was focused on “a mentality of survival,” he said. During his first pre-med meeting, UF professors told the students to look around the room “because probably only three or four of [them] will be accepted into the medical school.”
UF’s College of Medicine only had 85 seats. But Lezama was confident about his work ethic and abilities. “I looked around the room and wondered who the other three [that get in] will be, because I’m going to be one of them,” he said. “It was good to be a little naïve and very confident. How’s that combination?”
He added, “So I just wanted to get [into medical school] and figured I’d choose [my specialty] then.”
Lezama was accepted into UF’s College of Medicine, and his mentors there guided him toward internal medicine. The specialty clicked for him, as he preferred working with children to adults. “I really connected with the adult population and geriatric patients,” he explained. “So I went into internal medicine.”
In 1997, he was accepted into the University of South Florida’s residency program, which was the number-one school on his list. “Luckily, they thought highly of me and I came back home,” he said.
It was always his goal to return to Tampa as a doctor and serve the community through his vocation.
“And here I am, 20 years later, in a leadership position,” he said.
In 2000, coming out of his residency, he took a job as hospital physician at the VA, where he also assisted in the internal medicine clinic and ambulatory care.
It was a quick transition, he added. “On June 30, I was a resident, and July 1, I was an attending,” Lezama said. “Twelve hours. I was running out of the gate, the way I do everything. Like a rocket out of the gate.”
He also took on a role at USF as an attending physician, instructor and faculty mentor. In this role, he assisted the medical school with curriculum development and certification.
He rose through the ranks at both USF and the VA hospital.
At USF, he first served as the Department of Internal Medicine’s assistant program director, then associate program director, and, finally, in 2012, vice chair. That same year he also was promoted to professor of medicine.
At the VA, he was named chief of medicine in 2006 at age 34. “I was one of the youngest, if not the youngest, chiefs of medicine the VA has ever had,” Lezama pointed out.
In fact, he recalls going to his first training session in Washington, D.C. and those running the event thought he was in the wrong place. “They kept trying to convince me I was at the wrong meeting,” he said. “It took a few phone calls to verify I was who I was. Here I am, 12 years later, and I’m still one of the youngest. At 46, I’m still a very young chief of medicine.”
During his time at James A. Haley, he’s proud that his internal medicine residents have passed their board certification examinations 100 percent several times – including the last two years in a row – and many departments continue to rank highly compared to other VA hospitals throughout the country.
Under his watch, the hospital has also founded a renowned electrocardiology program. He also spearheaded a primary-care medicine track, a joint project between USF and the VA, to give medical students experience in primary care. To many students, primary care “is not as exciting as hospital care or specialties,” Lezama said. “But we want internal medicine residents to realize [primary care] is where it all starts. It’s the foundation of everything.”
Since Hurricane Katrina, he’s also been part of a team of local doctors and hospitals that assists with disaster relief and emergency services.
One of the most memorable relief efforts came in 2010, when Operation: Haiti Relief launched following a devastating earthquake hitting Port-au-Prince. For six weeks, Haitian nationals came into the United States through Tampa International Airport and local doctors and medical facilities were on hand to treat them. “I was proud to see a number of local physicians and hospitals get involved with this humanitarian effort,” Lezama said. “It was the first time disaster relief was organized for an international event.”
He also often gives back to institutions that have played a part in getting him to where he is today. “I always ask Tampa Jesuit if there’s anything I can do for them,” he remarked. “I’m a mentor with the UF Honors Program and speak [at events], and [work with] the USF College of Medicine. I’m very loyal. I like to give back to those programs that helped me over the years.”
Even with all he’s done through his career, Lezama said his greatest accomplishment was winning the Lutz Little League championship, his now-11-year-old son’s team. He coached alongside another local physician, Jose De La Torre, in what he said is “a very competitive league.” The team ended its season 19-1.
“This just shows what I try to teach my residents and students,” he said, “the importance of the balance between work and life.”
Lezama and his wife, Amy Abreu Lezama, a pharmacist at the VA, live in Lutz with their three children, who are 14, 11 and 6.
“My wife and three kids always come first,” he said. “Any decision I make about my career is based on how it will impact my family. I like my students to see that you can do all this [in your career] but still keep your ties to your family, your community and your faith.”

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