Sometimes, the phone rings in the middle of the night, and the caller asks simply for “Dr. Amler,” to which Dr. Sherlita Amler replies: “Do you want the male or female Dr. Amler?”
Both Sherlita and her husband, Dr. Robert Amler, are in high demand for their advice as national leaders serving at the forefront of fighting the COVID-19 crisis in Westchester and keeping residents as safe as possible during the pandemic. Sherlita is the commissioner of health for Westchester County. Robert is a vice president, dean, and professor at New York Medical College, in Valhalla. They live in the town of Southeast, just over the Westchester border, in Putnam County.
The couple are committed to the health of Westchester’s citizens and encouraged by the number of residents who have received their vaccines, but they both vividly recall the tenuous early days of the pandemic. According to Sherlita: “One of the biggest challenges at first was figuring out what to tell people about COVID and trying to keep the public calm and safe.
“There was a lack of valid information,” she adds, “and it was challenging to determine what was true and then helping people understand that.”
Complementing that effort, Robert has himself given interviews to hundreds of print and electronic media outlets, reaching millions of people in the U.S. and around the globe to keep them updated on the latest research and recommendations pertaining to the pandemic.
According to Westchester County Executive George Latimer, “Our strength as a county has been tested. We’ve watched thousands of our loved ones suffer through this devastating illness, but the Amlers and our public-health team stepped into action immediately. Putting aside every other responsibility, they had to address the crisis head on. The Amlers have worked tirelessly, with a professionalism and compassion that is undeniable.”
Both Drs. Amler have had vast experience in dealing with disaster medicine. Robert, who was born in New York City, did his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth and went on to get his MD and master’s in science at Rutgers University, as well as an MBA from NYU. While he did his residency in pediatrics, Robert was quickly recruited by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the early 1980s to serve in the Epidemic Intelligence Service in Atlanta. “While I was there, I worked on the original campaigns to eliminate measles and chickenpox through vaccination,” he says.
Robert then transferred to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, where he ran more than 100 field investigations around toxic-waste sites. In 1996, he became the CDC’s chief medical officer and served on President Clinton’s Task Force on Children’s Environmental Health and Safety Risks.
Sherlita has also been involved in healthcare and disaster medicine for her entire career. Born on Bryan Air Force Base, in Texas, she grew up in a military family that was always on the move. Her first job was serving as a public health investigator; she went on to get her nursing and doctoral degrees. She had a private pediatrics practice before getting a job in Atlanta as a medical officer at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the CDC.
While the Amlers had been introduced to each other at various symposia and events, they started dating after reconnecting with each other at a pediatric conference in the late 1990s. Shortly after 9/11, Robert got summoned by Washington to move to New York and take over as regional commanding officer of emergency response for the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
With Sherlita still living in Georgia, Robert says they became “geographic bachelors” for 18 months. “The flight attendants on the airline recognized us regularly because we were flying back and forth, and the standing joke was that when one of us was finally going to move to live with the other, they were going to retire seat number 14D,” he says.
As it turned out, Robert found out that Putnam County was offering a position as commissioner of health, so Sherlita applied and got the job in 2004. She moved on to the same job in Westchester County in 2011. She is also a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College and a distinguished lecturer and senior fellow at the Center for Disaster Medicine at the school.
Robert joined New York Medical College in 2005, serving as dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice and vice president for government affairs. He also serves at the college as professor of public health, pediatrics, and environmental health science. Plus, he’s still a practicing pediatrician.
When asked if they rely on each other for professional advice, Sherlita says, “If we have questions, we know where to go. I find, a lot of times, that if I don’t know the answer, Rob does and vice versa. There are certainly times that we discuss things with each other that no one else would understand the context.”
With such demanding careers, the Amlers make sure they carve out time for each other. Prior to the pandemic, they enjoyed going to the theater, dining out, and traveling but have since found a new appreciation of their time together at home. “In some ways, it’s good,” says Sherlita, “because we’ve been more focused on just having the opportunity to talk to each other. Sometimes, when you’re as busy as we are, you can kind of be ships passing in the night.” Sherlita adds that she and Robert also enjoy spending time with their combined family, which includes six children and eight grandchildren.
Being able to share their personal and professional lives is something that both Amlers cherish. “I think we’re just the luckiest people on the planet,” shares Sherlita. “Not only is Rob my best friend, he’s the person I can go to for advice related to all things, even work. It’s nice when you can roll that all into one person.”