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August 2010  |  Return to issue home

Distinguished Alum Celebrates Grads, Offers Advice

Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from remarks given by Dr. Christopher Elias in accepting the School’s Distinguished Alumni Award at the 2010 Awards Ceremony and Graduation Celebration.

Chris Elias
Chris Elias

First, let me congratulate today’s graduates. You’ve worked hard and greatly deserve this day of honor and celebration with your family and friends. Enjoy it. The world desperately needs your talents and your energy, starting tomorrow. In the meantime, it is great to share a bit of pomp and circumstance with you this afternoon.

I am truly honored to receive this year’s alumni award from the University of Washington, School of Public Health. It means a great deal to me to receive such recognition from the school that had the most determinant influence on my life and career. Which reminds me to also thank Steve Gloyd and Donald Patrick, who—together with Lorna Rhodes in the medical anthropology department and Tom Inui—signed off on my thesis twenty years ago so that I could graduate!

When my daughter was in the fourth or fifth grade, I remember her disbelief when I told her that between high school, college, medical school, internship, residency and public health school, I had gone to school for 25 years. I think she thought I was a really slow learner.

In reality, I was just on a journey to find my passion.

I had gone straight from college to medical school and residency. Like many of you, I had done some service learning along the way. So, when I finished my internal medicine training, I decided to work for a couple of years in the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border. I wound up running a pediatric ward in a bamboo hospital, with dirt floors and no electricity. I saw more patients in a month than I had in a year in the United States. And, most of them got better, despite the meager pharmacy and the rudimentary conditions. It was certainly rewarding—almost miraculous—to see severely dehydrated children blossom into happy kids with just a few hours of oral rehydration solution. My first few months on that border, I thought "medicine can’t get any better than this."

But after six to nine months, the sheer volume of illness and the monotony of pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, dengue and malnutrition began to wear on me. I realized that I was swimming against a very strong current. As I drove through the camp at dusk after a busy day seeing hundreds of kids, I developed an awareness of all the children who weren’t coming to the hospital. I sensed that poverty, poor water and sanitation, the absence of human rights protection, and lack of meaningful livelihoods were much more powerful determinants of health and illness than what I could do in the clinic.

That was when I decided to come here and learn the discipline of public health. Frankly, it was the first time I really knew why I was going to school.

I often think back to my two years here at the UW—sometimes to wonder how I ever managed to find anything without the internet or to fondly recall the world before PowerPoint, but mostly to remember the spirited debates with faculty and fellow students, the joy of discovering new ideas and the awakening of a sense of purpose. This School gave me the tools I needed to pursue my passion and set me forth into the world—like you—well prepared to make a contribution to the health of the public and, just as importantly, to continue learning.

My chosen field of practice was global health and, in the twenty years since I graduated, I have been privileged to live through the most remarkable two decades in the history of global health. The past twenty years have seen development assistance for health increase fourfold. World leaders now talk routinely about global health as a key component of "smart power" and the need for development to be on a more equal footing with defense and diplomacy as an essential tool of statecraft.

And, for the past decade, I have had what is arguably the best job in global health, as president of PATH. PATH is enmeshed in a complex web of partnerships—with companies, universities, UN agencies, governments and local community organizations—that are harnessing this new commitment to global health to develop and deliver affordable solutions to some of the world’s most serious health problems. We have seen malaria incidence fall by over half in places like Zambia. We will soon deploy a vaccine for meningitis in sub-Saharan Africa that costs just 40 cents a dose. And just this morning our team left North Korea, where they worked with the government to successfully immunize all the at-risk children under six with an affordable Japanese encephalitis vaccine.

This is a good time to be graduating.

But we wouldn’t be in Seattle if there weren’t a few clouds on the horizon.

The current financial crisis is threatening foreign assistance budgets. State and local health authorities in the US are facing some of the deepest budget cuts in their history—just as social safety nets are fraying. Climate change looms as a serious threat to public health, particularly for the poorest, both here and abroad. And there is an impatience to demonstrate results, to show that recent investments are having a return.

That’s where you come in.

I predict that the next two decades in public health will be even more remarkable: decades characterized by increased hope, but also increased complexity. Domestically, we have just begun the very messy process of reforming our healthcare system. Internationally, we need to finish the task of reducing morbidity and mortality from infectious disease and improving reproductive health and begin to deal with the next wave of chronic disease burden and injury prevention.

You’re going to be busy.

I tried to think of three things that it might have been helpful for me to hear 20 years ago. They’re pretty simple, but perhaps they might help you as you take the next step in your personal journey.
First, pace yourself.

Remember that you can’t help anyone else unless you take care of yourself. Balance won’t come every day in a hectic, hyper-connected world, but you’ll need it for the long term. As the anonymous author of the Desiderata once wrote, "be gentle with yourself."

Second, expect to be surprised.

As one of my colleagues at PATH likes to say, "we love it when our strategy is trumped by an emergent opportunity to make an impact." The last decade has seen some pretty big surprises in global health. Who would have thought a decade ago, when immunization rates in poor countries were falling, that Bill & Melinda Gates would commit $10 billion to a "decade of vaccines?" Or that George Bush would create the biggest program to expand antiretroviral treatment for people living with AIDS in Africa the same year he invaded Iraq? Entrepreneurs have always loved surprises, as they create the space for game-changing impact. Look for the weak signals and be ready to seize new initiative.

Finally, follow your passion. I suspect that—like me—people have been telling you to follow your passion throughout your life. But, what does that really mean? I discovered back on the Thai-Cambodian border that if I could feel good, even when I worked hard and sometimes failed, that was a sure sign of passion. It was what brought me to the University of Washington and it has guided my choices for the past 20 years.

In closing, let me once again thank you for this recognition and celebrate the accomplishments of today’s graduates. I’m looking forward to being awed by your future achievements.

Thank you.

August 2010  |  Return to issue home

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