The International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) has a broad network of talented faculty and staff across the globe. We are particularly lucky to benefit from the knowledge, passion, and dedication of many women within our network leadership — both in our country offices and independent partner offices. We recently had the chance to ask just a few of the women leaders in our network, “What drew you to a career in public health?” The answers were as varied as they were inspiring.
I am French native, with strong Cameroonian roots. I came from a Christian Presbyterian family. My father was the first medical pediatrician of Cameroon, and my mother was a nurse. I grew up with a culture and education of compassion, acceptance, and resilience. My parents were always trying to provide, with very little, a maximum of education and treatment for all.
My life as a toddler existed inside several outbreaks that affected children (cholera, kwashiorkor, meningitis, rubeola, polio). Observing my father treating more than 60 babies and children per day, with a great faith in God, undeniably inspired my career in public health.
Naturally, I chose to be pharmacist and medical biologist. I like the challenges–being on the front lines in Haiti, DR Congo, Tunisia, or Côte d’Ivoire in the battle against AIDS or Ebola is my passion.
When I entered medical school, I was drawn to psychiatry. I was also intrigued by the possibilities of preventive medicine and the challenge of problems that could not be solved in a doctor’s office.
Although I did not really know what the field of public health entailed, I was fascinated by the broad concept of culture and how culture, as well as social and political context, could support health or curtail help-seeking; how societies could systematically deny quality health care or adequate income and education to some groups—all of which affected health and wellbeing. I liked the idea that responses to these problems could benefit an entire population.
By the time I was a resident, I’d had some important experiences that confirmed my desire to study public health. In one example I sat with a group of South African nurses who were discussing how they might approach HIV prevention with their patients. They described cultural differences as tremendous barriers. They talked about how the threat of conflict with a spouse, or loss of a relationship, could influence health behavior and thus risk of disease. I listened to them, and I began to appreciate the complexity that public health must embrace in order to achieve its aims. That conversation led me to a public health research career with a central focus on HIV and mental health.
About 17 years ago, a close relative of mine died of AIDS at the age of 24. She was a commercial sex worker in her community. After she was diagnosed with HIV, the health care workers in the community disclosed her status to her family members, and it quickly spread in the community that she was HIV positive. She continued to hide her status, which prevented her from accessing care and taking her medication. Her health deteriorated rapidly, and she later died of AIDS. I was very hurt by the way she was treated by her own family members as well as members in the community. Her story inspired me to start looking for opportunities to help the sick, particularly those with HIV.
I applied for my first job in public health, HIV prevention, care, and treatment in 2006. My plan has always been to support those who are most vulnerable, as well as those who have suffered because of stigma and discrimination. What drives me every day is my passion to see those women, children, men who have sex with men, as well as other members of the key population groups receive comprehensive, equitable, and quality health care. No one should be left behind because of their gender, sexual orientation, profession, or social status.
Back in 1996, I was in my second year at the School of International Affairs in Kyiv. I found myself surrounded by predominantly business-minded/profit-focused classmates. I majored in social policy studies and, soon, realized that I want to devote my life to something more meaningful than money-making.
That year, I volunteered for the Harm Reduction Program at Soros Foundation and, eventually, got hired. The program supported initial few harm reduction sites in country, where no antiretroviral therapy (ART) was available, and people with HIV were dying daily.
Back then, my life-long passion for social justice and public health started along with my professional career. This passion drives me to date.