Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher answers an audience member's question at last Saturday's symposium on health disparities.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher answers an audience member's question at last Saturday's symposium on health disparities. (Photo credit: Stefan Kertesz, MD, MSc)

Last Saturday afternoon, Northeastern University’s Egan Research Center was the place to be for anyone interested in addressing our country’s health inequalities.

Health luminaries — including ABC News’ Dr. Timothy Johnson, Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, Mass. Secretary of Health & Human Services JudyAnn Bigby, and Mayor Menino’s Chief of Staff Judith Kurland — gathered together for a vibrant discussion of the role Schweitzer-spirited service can play in eradicating health disparities. 

Clockwise from upper left: DentaQuest President and ASF Board Chair Ralph Fucillo, Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, Mass. Secretary of Health & Human Services JudyAnn Bigby, ASF President Lachlan Forrow, Mayor Menino's Chief of Staff Judith Kurland, and Schweitzer Fellows for Life Michelle St. Fleur, and Dr. Rushika Fernandopulle, Ashley Younger, and Michelle St. Fleur (Photo credit: Stefan Kertesz, MD, Msc)

Clockwise from upper left: DentaQuest President and ASF Board Chair Ralph Fucillo, Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, Mass. Secretary of Health & Human Services JudyAnn Bigby, ASF President Lachlan Forrow, Mayor Menino's Chief of Staff Judith Kurland, and Schweitzer Fellows for Life Dr. Rushika Fernandopulle, Ashley Younger, and Michelle St. Fleur (Photo credit: Stefan Kertesz, MD, Msc)

Every bit as insightful and engaging in person as he is on “Good Morning America,” Dr. Tim — who served as the symposium’s Master of Ceremonies — kicked off the proceedings, introducing a nine-minute video about the work of the Schweitzer Fellows that you can watch here (it features Yo-Yo Ma, ASF Advisory Board member).

Next, ASF President Dr. Lachlan Forrow (pictured below) spoke briefly about ASF’s track record in addressing health disparities through on-the-ground service, and introduced the man responsible for bringing the term “health disparities” into the American public’s lexicon: Dr. David Satcher.

ASF President Lachlan Forrow. (Photo credit: Stefan Kertesz, MD, MSc)

ASF President Lachlan Forrow. (Photo credit: Stefan Kertesz, MD, MSc)

Satcher’s keynote was incredibly fascinating (among other things, he noted that in order to eliminate health disparities, “we must care enough, we must know enough, we must be willing to do enough, and we must persist in our efforts”). So, too, were the remarks delivered by Dr. Bigby and Judith Kurland, who eloquently introduced Dr. Rushika Fernandopulle (Boston Fellow, 1993-94), Michelle St. Fleur (Boston Fellow, 2007-08), and Ashley Younger (Boston Fellow, 2008-09).

His initial year as a Fellow was 15 years ago — but Schweitzer-spirited service to underserved communities remains Dr. Fernandopulle’s driving force. The Harvard grad, now board certified in internal medicine, serves on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and as an attending physician at MGH. He is also an executive at Renaissance Health (and a husband and father) — yet he spends every Tuesday-Friday away from his family, running a clinic in Atlantic City, NJ that serves immigrant casino workers who’d have no health care access otherwise. When asked how his more strictly academic peers view his commitment to serving communities in need,  Fernandopulle grinned wryly: “They think I’m crazy!”

Younger and St. Fleur got similar reactions from their peers, who wondered openly why anyone would tack a 200-hour community service component onto an already jam-packed year as a med student.  But as St. Fleur’s initial year went on (she served as the Director of the Center for Healthy Kids, a local health and nutrition resource for kids living at the Great Brook Valley housing project), she noticed that even her initially skeptical peers were coming around. After seeing the impact St. Fleur’s project was having on the community — and on her — she says, “A few of them started to ask me, ‘Hey, could I come in and help out at the Center for a few hours?” A 2008-2009 Boston Fellow, Thomas Peteet, continued St. Fleur’s work; today, the Center is thriving.

So is Younger’s project — a two-fold approach to addressing disparities in the Haitian community of Mattapan. Younger — who spoke at the symposium despite being 8.5 months pregnant! — organized a scholarship program to provide Haitian immigrants with certified nursing assistant training and certification, and trained the scholars to be community outreach educators, engaging them in illness prevention and cancer screening projects with the local community.

Ashley — who is graduating this month as a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner from the Boston College Connell School of Nursing — said that by the end of her year as a Fellow, the system her project set in place had become so sustainable that she became irrelevant. “And that was really my goal,” she said, adding that Dana Farber will be implementing larger-scale versions of her successful model in Boston-area communities.

Stay tuned for blog coverage of Saturday’s second event with Dr. Satcher, a concert and award ceremony with the Longwood Symphony Orchestra!

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