Dr. Ezra Barzilay was a Lambaréné Fellow in 1998, an experience that, over the course of a lengthy interview, he alternately describes as “career-defining,” “truly eye-opening,” “humbling” “overwhelming,” and occasionally even “emotionally brutal.”
“I know this may sound presumptuous because I was only a medical student at the time, but my Lambaréné Fellowship was really about rolling up my sleeves and practicing medicine for real,” says Barzilay, who completed a Fellowship at The Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon, on the west coast of Central Africa while a student at Tufts University School of Medicine. “There were no set hours. If someone came in to see a doctor, they would see a doctor, and in many cases, that meant that they would see me.”
Barzilay’s intimate knowledge of the Lambaréné experience—and the distinguished career it spawned—make him the ideal person to serve as program director for ASF’s Lambaréné Chapter, a role he assumed this month. Barzilay’s ASF credentials are further bolstered by the fact that before he went to Africa, he was a 1997-1998 Boston Schweitzer Fellow, during which time he created a program to improve access to healthcare for the deaf community.
As the Technical Lead for the National Public Health Institute Program at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Barzilay’s job is to figure out ways to help countries that want to strengthen public health systems, as well as those recovering from natural or other disasters, put programs in place that will improve health and fight the spread of disease. Projects can range from building water sanitation systems to establishing emergency medical care.
“We work with countries that span a spectrum of having no coordinated public health activities to those with complete infrastructure,” says Barzilay. “For countries with no public health infrastructure, we help them bring their priorities together, figure out what fits with their national health strategy, and help them identify the public health functions and legislative framework that will be the foundation for a national institute of public health. Places with existing infrastructure may want to further develop a certain skillset or develop new public health activities, and we help them do that.”
Barzilay previously served as the Lead Epidemiologist for the CDC’s Health Systems Reconstruction Office where he worked closely with a team in Haiti implementing a disease surveillance system. Prior to that, he served as the Deputy Incident Manager for CDC’s Response to the Cholera outbreak in Haiti, helping to stem an outbreak of the disease in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake that devastated the island in early 2010.
As program director of ASF’s Lambaréné chapter, Barzilay intends to increase the chapter’s outreach not just to potential Fellows, but to medical schools as well, so that they understand just how valuable the rotation can be to a student’s development. “I want to make sure that the students out there in medicine are aware of it, and know that the experience is not just three months out of a year of medical school―which of course is a significant commitment―it’s career-defining,” he says.
Barzilay also plans to bolster the support given to Lambaréné Fellows by ASF by recruiting Lambaréné Fellows for Life to serve as mentors to current Fellows. The presence of a sounding board is essential for Fellows in Africa, says Barzilay, both for their mental and psychological health and their growth as young physicians.
“I have yet to meet a single Lambaréné Fellow that hasn’t had to do some very serious soul-searching while at the Schweitzer hospital. It’s such a different experience; it stirs things within you,” Barzilay says. “Whether it’s just getting in touch with your own humanity and sensibilities, dealing with medical ethics and ‘How do I manage this?’ or ‘Why can’t we do this?’ or just the frustration of seeing that diseases that are one-hundred percent preventable here in the United States, can have bad outcomes in Africa simply because they they happen in a resource-constrained environment. These are the things that have to be worked through.”