Leading with Love in Global Health – Issa Trust Foundation Volunteer

By Merrian J. Brooks, DO, MS

I am writing this from my new desk as the lead pediatrician and research director for the Botswana UPENN Partnership. Botswana, a country the size of the US state of Texas with a population of a little more than 2 million people is one of my global health homes. The other is Jamaica.

10 years ago I graduated from medical school and I have been reflecting on my journey in medicine. Unlike some, I didn’t always want to be a physician. I admired scientists like Mae Jamison and Marie Curie, women who changed the world with their scientific contributions.  Then, as an undergraduate student, I discovered my passion for medicine during a study abroad semester in Ghana. I was a volunteer at the University of Ghana, Legon hospital. As an undergraduate student I didn’t have any technical skills so I just got to know the hospital system and helped out where I can. I helped check people in (which was very humbling!), helped clean rooms, helped gather and organize supplies, even changing some bed pans! After doing this for a several months I spent the last few weeks shadowing one of the only specialists in the hospital at the time (2004), a pediatrician. That’s when I decided I was going to be a physician. The world needed physicians and I could also change the world   maybe not as a Nobel laureate or trailblazing astronaut, but in a smaller way, as a compassionate, committed, and quality physician for the global underserved.

So, I went to medical school at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. There I worked with a trailblazer in global public health, Dr. Mario Grijalva PhD. She is a research scientist from Ecuador who has transformed the landscape of interventions for Chagas’ Disease in his home country. I travelled to Ecuador a few times with the Tropical Disease Institute that he and other scientists at Ohio University started. I learned a lot in preparation and when in Ecuador from Dr. Grijalva and is amazing team. What has stayed with me since then, though, and what I apply today in. my work in Botswana is that partnerships are vital, instead of seeing our colleagues in the countries we work in as conduits we partner with them. We help them with the resources we have, we lean on them as leaders, we collaborate as equals. Dr. Grijalva supports the education of countless Ecuadorian students at all levels and has brought his team to the US to further their education. As a team of US and Ecuadorian professionals this group has been able to do amazing work in many areas of public health in Ecuador.

As a pediatric resident I learned about how important global health concepts can be even in certain communities in the United States. I chose a residency that was in Camden New Jersey at a hospital system that serves as a safety net for a community with high rates of poverty, insurance that limits access to pediatric subspecialists, and social scenarios like high levels of community violence or food deserts that can make it hard for children to live full healthy lives. It was during my residency that I discovered the Issa Trust Foundations rotation program. What I loved about the program was that it was being well supported by the foundation. Many pediatricians came before me and many came after me and it felt like we were providing a service that really filled a need. Instead of being a once off visit all together we were ‘the pediatrician’ in these underserved parts of Northern Jamaica. I worked with Issa Trust Foundation several more times after that providing support when in the US and going on a few of the trips to do community screening and referrals. I still remember a song a few of the young men sang for us when we were preparing for a community pop-up clinic in St. Ann’s Bay. It was called Paper Cut, and it was about how their lost love had left the sting of a ‘paper cut’ on their hearts. I loved my time there. I felt like we were making a real difference. Connecting to services for the young man with cerebral palsy, providing treatments for infections and rashes, connecting people with chronic diseases like epilepsy with specialist, and also just being an listening ear providing support and reassurance to weary parents. I remember one mother that I saw a few times in Port Maria was so happy about getting her sons asthma under control that she brought me a bag of ‘ripe banana’ as thanks. Other families would bring me flowers, homemade jewelry, and homemade cards. I know that I was a part of a larger system that does a real service for kids on Jamaica, but I also know that taking care of those patients almost always made my heart sing. On one of those trips to Jamaica I remember sitting in the lobby of Couples Towers Isle and having my first of many deep conversations with Diane Pollard. What I remember most from that conversation is that she clearly worked hard to do the best she can so serve from a place of love. She and her small but mighty team worked tirelessly to continue to elevate the foundation so that it provided needed services, supplies, and expertise to fill the needs and requests of the expert pediatricians serving children every day in Jamaica. Of all that I learned between Camden and Jamaica in serving the underserved, I will always center my work, like Diane does, in love.

After completing training in pediatrics and then adolescent medicine I decided to pursue my calling in global health full time via a David N. Pincus Foundation Global Health Fellow with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. At that time four year ago I was able to be fully immersed in the health system in Botswana and really focus on how I can contribute, collaborate, and learn from and with my colleagues in Botswana. While here I have helped to enhance an adolescent health clinic, work with the ministry of health and wellness on guidelines, set up a research project that increases access to mental health services for adolescents and young adults and teach students of all levels about pediatrics and mostly about adolescent health. Most adolescents live in lower income resource limited settings, so I feel a particular affinity to teaching and building systems that work in all kinds of settings for adolescents. It can be difficult but building something that has a chance to serve youth for years to come, is so meaningful.

Now 10 years since graduating from medical school and A LOT of growth and development later I’ve accepted a position to be the Lead Pediatrician and Research Director of the Botswana UPENN partnership. Me and my husband and daughter will be based in Botswana for the next several years. Botswana is not just a good place for me to grow but it’s a place where I can authentically contribute and collaborate. My dear friend here in Botswana told me a few days ago, “Botswana had been good to you. You came here single as a fellow no kids and now! You must continue to be grateful for the blessings”. There are so many blessings. There are the blessings of amazing local mentors, colleagues and friends from Botswana. There are the blessings of a beautiful family that is with me and the privilege of having the most wonderful family and friends mentors and colleagues in the US (and Europe and Asia) who put in the work with us to stay connected. Even as I deal with grief and waves of disappointment because of covid I still can’t help but think wow, what a beautiful life I am privileged to live.

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