On a typical workday, Maria Llorente, MD ’86, can be found doing anything from finishing a two-hour didactic interactive session to hopping on a White House meeting or facilitating a support group for Vietnam veterans.
“The VA gives opportunities for me to try on different hats,” said Llorente, who has served as a geriatric psychiatrist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. for nearly 30 years. “I’ve had the opportunity to host educational initiatives, lead research projects and even implement legislation.”
Llorente was recently honored for her decades of contributions with the 2023 John D. Chase Award for Executive Excellence in Health Care, which recognizes sustained executive leadership and professional performance.
For Llorente, who was born in Cuba but grew up in Miami, a 1963 film inspired her career path. After watching “Captain Newman, MD,” at age 16 — a movie about a kindhearted military psychiatrist who decides whether soldiers are ready to return to combat in World War II — she decided she wanted to work with veterans as a psychiatrist.
Remaining close to home for her training, Llorente attended medical school at UF and completed her psychiatry residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. She has since spent her career at the VA, where she serves as the deputy assistant undersecretary for health for patient care services.
Her role includes treating veterans with complex psychiatric diagnoses, mentoring residents in the delivery of group therapy, facilitating the VA’s response to the concerns of veterans, and more. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Llorente’s team rapidly pivoted to deliver telehealth services, converting traditionally in-person, weekly group therapy meetings to online conference calls during quarantine. To Llorente’s surprise, her patients, who mainly consisted of elderly veterans with ongoing symptoms of combat post-traumatic stress disorder, favored the online sessions, with members who had moved away now able to reconnect with their support group.
More recently, Llorente and her team worked to pass the PACT Act, a law that aims to simplify the complex processes required for veterans to receive aid for their presumptive illnesses after exposure to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances. The legislation requires the VA to provide a toxic exposure screening questionnaire to every veteran enrolled in VA health care and helps improve the research, education and treatment related to environmental exposures.
“It heightens your sense of having to look for and screen for the diseases that are known to be related to the occupational military exposure,” Llorente said. “At this time last year, we were still developing the toxic exposure screening and today, we’ve screened over 3.5 million veterans.”
For Llorente, winning the John D. Chase Award serves as a testament to her supportive colleagues at the VA and to UF, the place she believes helped her become the health care leader she is today.
“It’s a special privilege getting to serve veterans and their family members,” Llorente said. “The most gratifying part is helping veterans live long, quality, independent lives.”