After a career as cardiologist and teacher, Stephen Humphrey had retired when he discovered first-hand the dire need for medical school instructors in a resource-poor country.
A career as a registered nurse providing psychotherapy gave Nancy Remington a chance to see strides in treatment and acceptance of psychiatric illnesses. Then she saw a chance to bring that progress to settings where mental health needs go untended in overburdened systems.
The child of immigrant parents, Kiran Mitha had directed her medical career to meeting the needs of under served people in her home town when, close to the end of her own training, she saw how her education could make a crucial contribution halfway around the world.
The three were among the 30 American doctors and nurses sworn into the Peace Corps as the first class of the program’s Global Health Service Partnership volunteers in a White House ceremony Thursday. The effort is the product of a Peace Corps, President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief and Boston-based nonprofit Seed Global Health (previously Global Health Service Corps) collaboration. The volunteers, who left over the weekend following their swearing in — for Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda — will spend a year or more working with local medical school faculty helping to train doctors and nurses in countries where health systems are hobbled by shortages of medical professionals and people to educate them. Ranging in age from 26 to 70 years old, nearly all of the volunteers have worked before in resource limited countries, and seven have previously served in the Peace Corps. For Remington and Humphrey, who are 60 and 67 respectively, becoming Peace Corps volunteers was the realization of a dream dating back to their youths. For Mitha, 31, joining the Peace Corps and sharing her training would have been impossible but for the contribution of Seed Global Health, which raised money that will help 27 of the volunteers offset $700,000 in student loan debt.
Recruited from across the United States, the first Peace Corps class of its kind is, Seed Global Health founder and chief executive officer Vanessa Kerry said, “outstandingly diverse.”
Among the common bonds they do have: “They’ve been looking for an opportunity like this for years,” Kerry said.
For Humphrey that dates back to at least 2006, when following his retirement, he went to a remote clinic in Niger with his wife who also is a physician.
“We were seeing long lines of patients,” he said. “It felt like the sink was running over, and we were just mopping up the floor. No one was turning off the spigot.”
A group of medical students in their last year of training came to the clinic and put the chasm between needs and services in sharp relief.
“They were the kids you want to teach,” he said. “They were hungry to learn.” But, he saw, “They were basically teaching themselves. Their professors were superb, but there were too few of them.”
Some had been poached by nongovernment organizations offering better pay and reasonable hours, some had gone overseas to complete their education and never returned. (“You couldn’t blame them,” Humphrey said, “They’d come back to die an early death from overwork.”) Those who were there rushed from patient to classroom, with not enough time for either, let alone to fill the large gaps in their students’ training. The health care system’s greatest need, he realized, was faculty in the medical school. He and his wife were searching for a way to fill that need when they learned of the Global Health Service Partnership, he said. “It was just providential.”
He and his wife, who will work with another Peace Corps response through the Columbia University-based ICAP, left for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on Saturday.
Remington had been frustrated by lingering stigma standing in the way of mental healthcare in the United States, and glad to see that growing awareness of effective treatments was making a difference. But she knew, silence and shame surrounding mental illness remains among the barriers to care in African countries where government policies are just beginning to address service gaps, but where, she adds, “it’s the education that’s really missing.”
She left this weekend for Malawi, where she will train nurses at a hospital in Zumba.
Mitha’s family had come to the United States from India and Pakistan, and the stories her grandmother told her highlighted the stark differences in services, heath and opportunity that could coexist on the same planet, even in the same city. Growing up in Los Angeles she saw the differences in front of her, as she worked and planned a medical career that would address unmet needs. Then in her first year of medical school she spent a month in Addis Ababa where she saw the connection between “the vast number of preventable diseases,” and the challenges — in transportation, food, shelter –that affect health. During her residency she returned to Africa, this time to Uganda, and with more education behind her, she saw, “I had more to give back. I realized the big area of need the hospital had was education and training.” She found herself most useful, she discovered, when she was working with students. “I felt my impact was long-lived.” Mitha left this weekend for northern Uganda where she will train medical students.