By Ed Rabinowitz | April 11, 2014
A highly successful infectious disease specialist in Pasadena, CA, and the founder and director of Huntington Hospital’s Phil Simon Clinic for individuals with HIV/AIDS, Kimberly Shriner, MD, FACP, has helped make great inroads in the treatment and understanding of this disease.
Given that level of success, Shriner could easily take her vacation or “downtime” and travel anywhere she wanted or stay at home and recharge her batteries. Instead, she journeys almost annually to the United Republic of Tanzania, Africa, in an effort to support the AIDS crisis there. Why?
“Around 2000, it was very clear that we were beginning to have some impact in controlling the disease in the United States, but in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has known the burden of HIV for a long time, it was still kind of raging,” Shriner explains. “And, so, I felt I had a wonderful team of healthcare professionals—nurses, social workers, administrators—and we thought if there was something that we could do in Sub-Saharan Africa, that we could make a contribution.”
Shriner and her team have done more than simply make a contribution. They’ve had a significant impact. And they’re not alone. They’re among the many physicians and other healthcare professionals who freely give their personal time to ensure the safety and health of others less fortunate.
The Tanzania Project
Shriner made her first medical mission to northern Tanzania in 2002 through the support of the non-profit organization Global Partners for Development. As a child, she had dreamed of going to East Africa, and her dream had become reality. But the trip itself was a sobering experience.
“In those days—and it still is to some extent—HIV was a huge stigma in the African culture, and so people didn’t want to be tested for stigmatizing reasons,” Shriner recalls. “There was no therapy available, so it really was a death sentence.”
But what impressed Shriner was that the African people, despite a lack of medical support and infrastructure, had taken it upon themselves to start forming HIV support groups. The groups were largely comprised of HIV-infected people who would visit people ostracized from their villages and make sure that they at least had some water to drink or some comfort that could be provided at that time.
“I was impressed by the spirit of the people, that they were able to do what they could,” she says. “And we were very interested in trying to create support groups for HIV.”
Shortly thereafter, Shriner founded The Phil Simon Clinic Tanzania Project, a small, community-based, highly focused endeavor to assist in the control of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. She has since been back 9 times, each time taking more clinicians with her, providing basic healthcare, medication, HIV and anti-retroviral education, as well as manpower and support to the impoverished region. And each time she visits, she finds it increasingly difficult to leave.
“We are all emotionally involved,” Shriner says. “The people who we work with that we’ve known for a length of time now, they are all part of our family.”
While they’ve changed many lives, the best part is how the people of Africa have changed Shriner and the other clinicians, she says.
“They never gave up, even when they had so very little.”
Providing sustainable healthcare
J. Michael Taylor, MD, MPH, a dermatologist living in Portland, ME, has had a career-long interest in public health, international, and community medicine. To some extent, that interest began when he went to Nigeria as a US Peace Corps physician, and later became chief of the department of community medicine at Maine Medical Center, where he established medical clinics in underserved parts of the state.
Today, that same interest has manifested itself in Taylor and his wife, and they founded Konbit Sante Cap-Haitien Health Partnership, an initiative that supports the development of a sustainable healthcare system to meet the needs of the Cap-Haitien community.
“I think it’s all part of a pattern,” says Taylor, modestly. “I think, quite frankly, it’s my nature. People sometimes ask, ‘How can you do all this stuff?’ Well, I don’t play golf. You know, you have so much time in your life, and you make a choice how you’re going to spend it.”
Why Haiti? Taylor says there are 2 reasons. The first is that he and his colleagues were welcomed from the start. And seeing the resources the area had, and didn’t have, they felt they were a good fit. But, perhaps more importantly, Taylor points out, is that there’s a difference between poverty and misery. Haiti, he says, is misery.
“The needs are overwhelming,” he explains. “I’m sure there are many other places in the world that are almost as bad, but there’s no place that’s worse when it comes to human resources.”
And correcting the lack of human resources was the focus of Taylor’s mission. As the expression states: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
“We decided right off the bat that if we were going to make a long-term difference, we couldn’t go in and establish a new hospital or clinic that was separate from the system,” Taylor says. “The system was, and still is, a wreck. And it’s much more difficult to work within the system. But we felt that if we were going to make a change, what we needed to do was help those Haitian professionals to do their job better; in a sense to educate them, and supplement them with equipment and supplies.”
Many Haitians have visited Portland for education, and Taylor has a presence in Haiti for half of the year, plus staff there that the organization has hired.
And if that’s not enough, Taylor and his wife founded Brightwater Bay Science, LLC, a Maine-based company whose mission is to create products and share knowledge to help people have healthy skin at any age.
Rock ‘n’ roll band
Go to the website www.nedtheband.com and you won’t be too surprised by what you see. A group of musicians—5 men and one woman—grace the homepage dressed in dark attire against a somber cityscape backdrop. They are members of the band N.E.D.
However, what will surprise you is that N.E.D. stands for No Evidence of Disease. And the members of the band are all renowned gynecologic oncologists. John Boggess, MD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on guitar and lead vocals; Joanie Hope, MD, Denali OB/GYN Clinic in Anchorage, on guitar and lead vocals; Nimesh Nagarsheth, MD, Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, on drums and percussion; William “Rusty” Robinson, MD, Tulane University School of Medicine, on bass guitar, harmonica, and vocals; John Soper, MD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on slide guitar and mandolin; and William Winter, III, MD, Compass Oncology in Portland, Oregon, on lead guitar.
The members, all musicians at one point in their lives, were pulled together in 2008 by a mutual acquaintance to play at a professional society’s national meeting—a novelty act, recalls Boggess.
“Reluctantly, all of us agreed,” he says. “We played a bunch of cover songs in front of about 1,500 people, and it sort of was a lot of fun. But we thought that was pretty much it.”
Instead, the idea was batted around that it would be pretty powerful to write their own music and develop an awareness campaign for gynecologic cancers. There are approximately 200,000 women who are impacted by gynecologic cancers each year, Soper explains, compared to about 230,000 who have breast cancers. However, the funding for breast cancers compared to gynecologic cancers is about 9 to one.
“And the fundraising for breast to gynecologic cancers must be in the ballpark of 50 to one,” he says. “Hopefully, we’re doing a little bit in our part to start the conversation. That’s our main mission behind our music.”
The band has already released one EP and is working on a second. A documentary on the band, its music and mission, is the subject of a documentary called “No Evidence of Disease,” which won a CINE Golden Eagle Award.
“We don’t sing about cancer, per se,” Boggess says. “It’s more about hope and survivorship, and more universal themes. But there are a few tracks that hit close to home. And no question about it, we have developed a decent-sized fan base.”
Soper says that patients will often ask if he is really in a rock ‘n’ roll band. He thinks that awareness works on multiple levels.
“It shows that I’m not just a white coat,” he explains. “That I’m a human being, too, who’s got passions and feelings about things. And I think that just in my interaction with patients, and in their interaction with me, I think it can warm up the clinical interaction if they know I’m not just a marionette or an authority figure.”
All of the proceeds from record sales and the like go back into the 2 foundations the band supports: The Foundation for Women’s Cancer, which is the national foundation for gynecologic oncology; and Margie’s Fund, a foundation based in Portland, OR.
When opportunity knocks
In 2001, Shawn Standard, MD, had just completed his fellowship and was a pediatrician at the Nemours Clinic in Jacksonville, FL. He always wanted to do missionary work, and had informed a local organization called CHORES (Children’s Hospital Organization Relief and Education Services) of his interest.
One day representatives of the organization showed up on his doorstep. They had a trip to Grenada in the West Indies ready to go, and a surgeon had backed out. They asked if he would like to make the trip—which left in 3 days.
“I thought, ‘Oh Lord,’” Standard recalls. “I didn’t even have a passport.”
He obtained a passport, made the trip, and has been doing mission work ever since.
Today, Standard is head of pediatric orthopedics at the International Center for Limb Lengthening at Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics in Baltimore. He still makes regular mission trips to Grenada, but, also, visits the Dominican Republic annually.
“I think it’s amazing what we take for granted in the United States,” Standard explains. “[The trips are] time consuming, but once you’ve been exposed, it’s amazing. The gratitude from the patients and the difference you can make in a simple visit is incredible. I’ve had patients walk for the better part of 2 days to the hospital, wait on me for 10 hours. In between operations I run out and see their child and deal with them for a brief 10 or 15 minutes. And it’s like giving them a gift that they would never have.”
Standard takes fellows with him on every trip and says that the entire mission is truly a team effort. In quoting colleague John Herzenberg, MD, Standard says that he and his team get more out of the trips than they give.
A typical day starts early with a large clinic for approximately 50 or 60 patients, followed by some 15 to 20 surgeries handled by his team. Many patients are also seen in between the scheduled surgeries, and it continues until 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. in the evening. Dinner follows, some rest, and the next day is a carbon copy of the previous one.
Standard says the hardest part of the trip is coming home. He often will be finishing his last surgery and can hear the honking of the team’s ride to the airport amid cries that they’re going to miss their flight. And as he leaves, he sees 15 or 20 patients in the waiting room who were hoping to see him.
What’s the most rewarding?
“Going to the same mission hospital year after year is kind of like in my own practice—I get to see familiar faces,” Standard says. “They know when I’m coming. I had one little girl who I reconstructed both her hands, and her family drove for about 3 hours just to say ‘hello’ to me and show me how well she was doing. In some of these societies if you’re handicapped, or you have a growth difference or an abnormality, you’re really shunned, or you’re set aside in society. And to see these children who have joined their society and grown up and be fulfilled is a wonderful thing.”