Vanessa Kerry is determined to transform global health

The physician and mother of two is also founder of Seed Global Health, a public-private partnership focused on training health professionals in the developing world. She’s also the daughter of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Vanessa Kerry, founder of Seed Global Health, with Bridget Malewezi, Seed Country Representative for Malawi (left) and Bonaventure Ahaisibwe, Seed Country Representative for Uganda (right). —Jean Nagy / Boston.com

Vanessa Kerry was raised in Boston with a name synonymous with politics and public service. She’s the younger of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s two daughters, and is charting a path that is very much her own — one that combines her devotion to medicine with her family’s tradition of public service.

Kerry has degrees from Yale University, the London School of Economics, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Harvard Medical School. A mother to two young children, she still finds time to work overnight shifts in the critical care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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Her true passion, though, is Seed Global Health, a public-private partnership she founded in 2012 that focuses on training health professionals in the developing world.

1. What was it like to grow up as the daughter of someone who was so much in the public eye?

My parents were divorced when I was little. When I was 7, my dad was elected to the United States Senate, so he would spend the weeks in Washington, D.C., and then come home every weekend.

I think because my parents were divorced, that my sister and I were allowed to have a somewhat more normal life than we otherwise would have. We grew up quietly in Boston with my mom during the week, and we did what every other kid did: We went to school, came home, did our homework, took out the trash.

So yes and no. Other kids would hear things at home about my dad and his job, and make assumptions. People always assumed we had a lot of money, but we actually didn’t. I worked every summer of my life, from high school onward. We knew we were privileged to have certain experiences, but there were a lot of assumptions made about us that were hard to overcome, especially as a kid.

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We were made aware, though, that we had opportunities that maybe other people didn’t and that it didn’t make us any more special, but it did give us a responsibility to use those experiences and opportunities wisely. And that was a lesson that was carried throughout the house growing up.

2. Did you feel like you grew up in a home where public service was important?

Absolutely. [My sister and I] had these very strong lessons from both parents growing up. My parents felt really, really strongly that my sister and I needed to grow up with a sense of, ‘You’re no different than anyone else, even if dad had an unusual job or a prominent job.’ We knew we needed to be very vested and participate in the world around us, and be very engaged in our community.

My dad worked incredibly hard and was incredibly devoted to public service. When he came home to Massachusetts on the weekends, he often had to work around the state. So on the weekends, we would go with him to different places, and learn about people’s needs and the diversity of the state, and the work that needed to be done. So we were exposed to public service at a very young age – my sister and me.

And I think my mom instilled a sense of giving back in us as well. My mom had a personal experience with depression. My godmother’s husband committed suicide in 1988, and I think [my mom] realized that no one really talks about depression and that it needed to be destigmatized. She wrote a book about it that actually became pretty acclaimed. And I think that was a different lesson I got, which was courage to speak out and advocate for the disenfranchised.

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3. Your dad’s career has been shaped in many ways by his service in Vietnam and his related work after. Was that something you were aware of as a kid?

Vietnam was a country that figured very highly in his own narrative because he fought in the Vietnam War. So we grew up with Vietnam as a huge part of our lives. It was something we talked about a lot. A huge part of my father’s career had been Vietnam Veterans Against the War. A lot of the friends we knew of his were people who had been a part of that.

So that experience was really profound for my father in terms of shaping his own public career. He would talk about it with us, but always to a point. We always knew there was a cut-off – that there were things he wouldn’t talk about. I don’t think my dad told me he killed somebody until I was in college. But we were very aware of his war experience.

4. Do you think your dad’s career in public service was influential in steering you into public service?

Absolutely. In 1991, my dad took us to Vietnam. I was 14. Because Vietnam had featured so prominently for dad, he wanted to bring us there.

The thing that really struck me about Vietnam – and shaped my life forever – was that there was a poverty there that I had never experienced or witnessed, even in traveling around Massachusetts. I was just so shocked by what I saw in Vietnam.

There were almost no paved roads. There wasn’t a lot of running water. There were no stores, really, outside the capital cities. We went to an orphanage for children born of American GI’s and Vietnamese women, and there were these kids who were 25 who had lived their whole lives in an orphanage. It still makes me feel sick to think about. It was just kids with tattered clothes, and it sounds really trite, but I don’t mean it that way. It was intense. I couldn’t necessarily articulate this as a 14-year-old, but it just really, really hung with me.

Kerry and her father on a trip to Vietnam in 1991. —Courtesy of Vanessa Kerry

5. Did you know you wanted to go into public service from that point on?

I always wanted to be a doctor. Always. I was that weird kid who wore fake glasses because I thought it made me look more scholarly. My sister used to make fun of me because I was such a big science dork.

So, I knew I wanted to be a doctor, but I also knew I had to do something with that Vietnam experience, which really was just transformative for me in a way I hung onto.

I studied biology at Yale, and after college, I was still pretty sure I wanted to be a doctor. But I felt like I needed – and wanted – to continue to explore. I spent a year living at home with my mother in Montana, and worked. I did totally random jobs: I worked on a ranch, wrangling cattle, building fences and I worked for a photographer … taking pictures of kids with Santa Claus at a mall. And I saved my money, and bought a one-way ticket around the world.

The plane landed in Kenya, and I remember looking out the window, and looking at the sky, and looking at the land, and I remember this weird sense of ‘Life is not going to be the same.’

I spent the next two months in Africa, and everything I had seen in Vietnam was reinforced, a decade later. The bug had been bitten; I knew I wanted to do global health.

And then I went to medical school, and realized I wanted to marry my medical career and my interest in international relations. I applied for a scholarship on the premise that I wanted to study medicine and international relations. And they kept saying, ‘If you want to be a doctor, why do you want to study international relations?’ And my argument was that all that stuff would affect health, but nobody bought it.

My first summer after medical school, I got sent to Ghana to work studying the completion rate of a vaccine they had launched there. They wanted to see how many people took all three doses of the vaccine. It was this beautifully designed study and we were going to do random sampling based on peoples’ addresses. Turns out, people don’t have addresses. It was totally eye-opening.

6. Is that how did the idea for Seed came about?

Well after I graduated from medical school, I went to Rwanda. I kept seeing people deliver care and then move on, without transferring skills. It was also clear to me there just weren’t enough doctors and nurses in these countries.

I also knew lots of people here that had graduated medical school and wanted to do global health, but had loans and needed to pay back their loans. The average physician graduates with $170,000 in debt. If you go into the Peace Corps, your loans will be accruing. There was loan repayment for domestic service, there was none for international service.

I thought there should be a government program to encourage international service in medicine. I’m an optimist about governemnt.

In 2010, my friends and I started a grassroots campaign. Our idea is that if you train a health professional, you can leverage them to train across a whole spectrum. We asked the Peace Corps, ‘What do you think about doctors and nurses going with the Peace Corps to deliver medical care? But more importantly to teach, train, and build capacity.’

They said it was a great idea. And that’s how we sort of organically gave birth to Seed Global Health.

We started in 2012, and our first class went out in 2013. Our first class was 30 volunteers; our second was about 42 people. So those 72 volunteers taught a little over 7,200 doctors, nurses and midwives.

[Seed] provides all the expertise in medical and nursing education so we help support our volunteers while they’re in the field with that expertise. We also partner with the sites in the countries where we’re working in order to provide that expertise to those sites.

So we have partnered with the Peace Corps to send doctors and nurses abroad, and [Seed] fundraises to finance the loan repayment piece. We find a way to get everyone up to $30,000 for each year served.

Not just young, recent graduates. We actually help older people pay back mortgages. Let’s say they don’t want to sell their house but they’d like to serve for a year – and they have a monthly mortgage payment. We can help with that. Or let’s say you have a kid who is a dependent and you’re helping pay their education. We’ll help you pay that. We took a very expansive approach as to what financial barriers to service would be. We’ve offset $2.3 million worth of debt through loan repayment since we started.

Kerry in her office at Seed Global Health. —Jean Nagy / Boston.com

7. Where does Seed currently operate? Are there plans to expand?

We’re in Tanzania, Malawi, and Uganda. We partner with 13 institutions in those three countries.

This upcoming year, we’re going to be going to Swaziland. Swaziland is really interesting because it has the highest HIV rate in the world. Swaziland has a totally nurse-led system, so we will be training those nurses to run that system.

And hopefully – Liberia. We’re seriously looking to begin partnering with Liberia in 2016. In Liberia our goal would be to help them rebuild. The reason Ebola happened with the scope and scale it happened in Liberia was because there were not enough health professionals to recognize and be able to advocate for addressing the disease. They need enough of their own trained healthcare professionals to be able to stand up their own system.

8. How have Seed’s efforts been received abroad?

Our partners on the ground have said, ‘What you’re doing here is changing how we view Americans because Seed is coming in to our program and really integrating with what we do. You’re not living behind white walls.’

Our director of family medicine was a volunteer last year, and she would tell stories of going into the ward and finding dead babies. They had died of respiratory distress. She realized that there was not a comfort level — or enough training — in how to resuscitate babies. After she trained them, she started to come in the morning and she would be told how a baby went into respiratory distress and now they’re OK. And then the doctors she trained started organizing other trainings.

In Tanzania, a woman dies every hour from complications of pregnancy or childbirth. Within her first hours of being at her first site on her first day, [a volunteer] was able to perform a life-saving procedure on a patient. The patient was a mother who had five children at home that she could now go home to. The volunteer then trained her counterparts on that procedure.

In Uganda, one of our volunteers was under a bed trying to fix a catheter. A group of visitors came through the Ugandan hospital and asked, ‘Who’s the muzungu under the bed?’ which is the local term for white person, and the Ugandan host said ‘He’s not a muzungu, he’s one of us.’ I thought that really spoke volumes in terms of the way we designed Seed.

If that’s the America we can put out there, that’s amazing.

9. Not everyone is convinced we should be devoting significant resources to healthcare in other countries. How do you convince people that global health is important?

To take the dramatic example, we had a case of Ebola in the community in Dallas, Texas. And we freaked out. You would have thought Ebola hit this country full force. What we try and point out to people is, ‘If you’re worried about Ebola coming to the United States, the greatest way to stop a disease from coming is to stop it at the heart of where it is. So to stop Ebola in the United States, we really needed to be focused on West Africa.’

If proper protocols are followed, Ebola is actually not as contagious as people think. We can shut it down and keep it isolated to a single case. And early treatment has close to 100 percent survival. It was deadly at high rates in Liberia because there’s no healthcare system to deal with it.

So, if we make the investment in global health, so those countries are not constantly relying on outside help and outside investments. We will save money in the long run.

It costs Seed about $700 to train a single health professional in an underdeveloped country. That investment puts a highly trained, highly skilled health professional on the ground, one who is capable of taking care of their patients. And that means fewer controllable diseases coming here on airplanes.

10. Have you ever considered — or might you ever consider — running for office?

I used to think I would run for office, especially in and after 2004, where even in defeat I felt deeply motivated to fight for something better. My thoughts have shifted as I have become a physician and started Seed. I have platform to fight for better opportunities for vulnerable populations through this work and feel a deep sense of honor to be able to participate in it. It is the same commitment but implemented differently.

Know someone in Boston who you’d like to see featured in a future Q&A? Email me at sargent@boston.com.

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