Vanessa Kerry has always done it her way. Despite being the daughter of Secretary of State John Kerry, Vanessa Kerry’s drive comes from with- in. There is an unmistakable focus about Vanessa Kerry that suggests she is a person on a mission. The Harvard Medical School honors graduate has taken a wider view of medicine that could someday dramatically impact world health. Kerry left Harvard medical school with not only a degree, but with a vision that has since become a growing nonprofit. Working in collaboration with the Peace Corps and Massachusetts General Hospital, Kerry is the CEO of Seed Global Health, an organization whose objective is to train doctors and nurses in resource-limited countries with the ultimate goal of making them self-sufficient. N Magazine interviewed Kerry at Mass General Hospital in Boston.
N: You are remarkably focused. Were you this way when you were very young?
DR. KERRY: I was that kid who always knew I wanted to be a doctor. There are pictures of me wearing glasses and carrying a microscope, because I thought that’s what you did to be a doctor and that’s how you got invested in that world. My family tells stories of me studying ants as they crawled across the pavement. They would argue that I am still overly focused—which is why I come back to the ocean here on Nantucket. It reminds me to lift my head up and enjoy my surroundings.
N: What do you think influenced your early ambition?
DR.KERRY:I grew up in a house of public servants, my father was in the Senate and my mother was very focused on helping people that had experiences with depression and understanding that they were not alone. I grew up with this great sense of being engaged with the world and people around you.
N: When you were in medical school, was it clear to you that you were going to be more than just a doctor?
DR. KERRY: I think of myself first and foremost as a doctor. What I am doing with my work and with Seed Global Health is about being a doctor and empowering others like me to be able to both be doctors and nurses but also train other doctors and nurses in countries where there are critical shortages of health care providers. I have always gravitated to doing medical work outside the hospital, where my medical work would extend beyond my personal interaction with a single patient in an ICU. It really goes back to a trip I took when I was 14 to Vietnam, and I was really shocked at the poverty that I saw. I had seen poverty in this country and was aware of the great disparities we have here at home, but I was just shocked at what I saw in Vietnam. It made me realize that I didn’t want to just do medicine but that I wanted to be involved in global health, and that has very much influenced my choices on where I went to medical school, who I worked with in medical school, and what I’ve done with my career.
N: So how does Seed Global Health work?
DR. KERRY: Seed Global Health is a private non-profit committed to cultivating stronger, sustainable health systems by training a new generation of physicians and nurses. We partner with the Peace Corps to provide the technical support to send doctors and nurses abroad to work alongside local faculty in medical and nursing schools. These volunteers teach, train and transfer skills to build a pipeline of health professionals for resource limited countries. They actually go as Peace Corps volunteers to serve in one-year posts as educators. Critically, Seed Global Health provides debt repayment sup- port through private philanthropy, to ensure that financial debt such as educational loans or mortgages are not a barrier to participating among these committed individuals.
N: You co-founded Seed Global Health, and have two impressive partners: Massachusetts General Hospital and the Peace Corps. Can you elaborate?
DR. KERRY: Mass General has been an out standing supporter, and they’re actually Seed Global Health’s flagship academic partner- ship to create this program. David Bangsberg, who is the Director of the Center for Global Health, Mass General Hospital’s President Peter Slavin and Chief Nurse and Vice President for Patient Care Services Jeanette Ives Erickson each encouraged me to think about ways to bring this idea to fruition. The program Seed Global Health has started is in fact a partnership with the Peace Corps. We work closely with the Peace Corps to send doctors and nurses abroad as medical and nursing educators to help address gaps in access to quality healthcare that exist in so many countries. The World Health Organization estimates that in 57 countries around the world, there is a critical shortage of 2.4 million doctors, nurses and midwives. In Tanzania, for example, there are only 24 nurses and one doctor for every 100,000 people. In the US we have 35 times as many nurses and 240 times as many doctors. We urgently need to ad- dress this critical shortage through training and professional development.
N: Explain your interaction with the Peace Corps.
DR. KERRY: We have a unique public/private partnership with the Peace Corps, which for more than 50 years has been incredibly effective at placing volunteers in the field. Our team helps select the volunteers and sites, pro-vides technical field support and evaluates the effectiveness of the program. Seed Global Health provides loan repayment stipends for eligible volunteers to remove one of the greatest barriers to service in this country: professional, educational loans, mortgages, independent loans. The Peace Corps provides structure and support in the host countries.
N: The Peace Corps was created in a benevolent way, however, one of the motivators was to increase America’s influence on the world by offering a helping hand. What do you see as the diplomatic impact of what you are doing?
DR. KERRY: I think there’s potentially a huge diplomatic impact of what we are doing. We are working with the Peace Corps to create the first United States program for medical and nursing service which means for the first time there is a systematic way that the United States government is supporting clinical training in these countries. We hope to create a new face of the United States in terms of health, and health diplomacy going forward. But I also think that there’s diplomacy any time you are engaging with another culture and you are making their priorities your priorities.
N: Can you give some specifics as to Seed Global Health’s goals?
DR. KERRY: We are launching in Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda this summer. There are 31 volunteers deploying in the program this year. When we go to Malawi, for example, we will partner with the University of Malawi, the Malawian public sector, and US government collaborators to help strengthen the ability for leadership—the Ministries of Higher Education and Ministry of Health’s—to reach their training and human resource goals. Training new doctors and nurses from Malawi will allow those individuals to in turn train additional future doctors and nurses. Ideally, in ten years, Malawi will have an independent, and country-owned health system supported by faculty from their own country, staffed with trained doctors and nurses in the field who will serve their communities for years to come.
N: In ten years what will be your definition of success?
DR. KERRY: I take things day to day, so my current definition of success is seeing these 31 volunteers—having completed orientation in DC in July—established in their host countries to build partnerships and to train doctors and nurses. We have set an initial goal of 180 volunteers in 15 countries in five years but it could be more or fewer. Success is really about the fact that we’re growing, and seeing results on the ground. It is in quality as much as quantity. Success for me may ultimately mean that we are thinking about ways to expand to additional professions and to establish our program here in the US, for exam- ple, placing needed obstetricians or psychiatrists in rural areas here at home. Global is local too, and there is a deep need here at home.
N: What is your limit to growth?
DR. KERRY:One of our greatest limitations is financial support which can help in ways ranging from supporting the sites to the un-sexy but essential operations that keep the cogs moving. A gift of $5,000 can pay an entire year of medical or nursing education for a local doctor or nurse. In-kind support is also powerful—equipment for medical and nursing training.
N: How can young doctors and nurses afford to be volunteers?
DR. KERRY: We realized that recently trained physicians would not be able to participate in this program if they did not have the additional support to pay back the average of $150,000 worth of medical school debt that they accrue. Many nurses also carry significant educational debt. This year we will help eliminate nearly $700,000 worth of debt for 27 of our volunteers who would not be able to serve without our support.
N: It seems poetic that at the exact time your father is practicing his global vision, you are practicing yours.
DR. KERRY: I actually feel extraordinarily honored that my work would even be referenced along with my father’s, as I am extremely proud of him. He is the one person who has always said to me, “You never turn your back on someone in need,” and I hold on to those words every day. I actually never told him what I was doing as I began planning with the Peace Corps because I never wanted to complicate the picture and didn’t want anyone to think that Seed Global Health got started with assistance from my father. It’s amusing to me that when my father was asked about Seed Global Health during his vetting for Secretary of State, he genuinely knew almost nothing about it. Where my work aligns with my father’s is this idea that the United States has a lot to give and we not only influence the world, but the world is influencing us and we can’t turn away from that. I truly believe that health underlies everything we do in the world. If you have a healthy population, a population that lives longer, then you have the potential for greater economic growth. Investments in health care ultimately can make governments more stable. So health is deeply tied to everything we do with diplomacy.
N: What are some ways people can support Seed Global Health?
DR. KERRY: Support is welcome in all forms. Follow us and our first–year volunteers via Twitter, Facebook or our website www.seedglobalhealth. org. Some of the first year participants are blogging, sending photographs and videos of what they are doing and seeing.
HOW TO SUPPORT SEED GLOBAL HEALTH:
$5,000 lets a trainee stay in school, pay their living costs and support their education throughout the year so they can become a doctor or nurse.
$10,000 will support a site and provide electronic resources, help build a library and provide the necessary teaching and training equipment on that site.
$30,000 supports a stipend year enabling a physician or nurse to serve despite the burden of debt, reaching hundreds of students.
Donations of any amount are encouraged and to support the program email firstname.lastname@example.org http://seedglobalhealth