Will Perez '08, MD '13
What is your current status at Brown?
I graduated from Brown in 2008 and now I’m a 3rd year medical student at the Warren Alpert Medical School concentrating in Global Health.
How did you first get interested in global health?
There was no defining moment that inspired me to take action. I spent most of my childhood, moving from house to house and shelter to shelter, switching schools a dozen times before graduating. I learned courage and tenacity, watching my mother fight everyday for our survival. My passion for medicine, global public health, politics and poverty are the result of the life I’ve lived and the education I’ve received. I believe in empowering others, the way I was empowered. With the support of many, I became the first person in the history of my family to ever graduate from high school. The obstacles I’ve overcome and struggles I’ve faced have painted for me a clearer picture of the world and my place in it.
I was still in high school when I picked up a New York Times article with a picture of a Haitian woman baking clay biscuits of sand and water, to feed her children. I hung the picture above my bed and for weeks, it was the only thing I could talk about. I woke every morning to that picture, and made the same promise, that I would give my life to put an end to that kind of suffering.
Over the next four years, I fell in love with Haiti: it’s history and the stories of its people. I began learning Haitian Creole and attended several of Dr. Paul Farmer’s talks. There, I met a young man who informed me of volunteer opportunities at the Pwoje Espwa orphanage. A two-week visit to the orphanage and Dr. Farmer’s example, cemented my passion for wanting to work in Haiti. At 4 a.m. the day after my college graduation, I left for Haiti to work as the first public health director for Pwoje Espwa.
Living in Haiti for a year, I trained 16 orphaned youth and formed a public health team. The team went on to provide hundreds of children and adults with tuberculosis treatment and drastically reduced malaria cases in their area, along with reductions in waterborne pathogens, bed bugs and parasitic infections through simple preventive measures.
More than 1,200 patients were directly treated, and nearly 10,000 benefited from the public health efforts.
I deferred medical school so that I could experience the public health field through an anthropological lens rather than a strictly medical one. When I moved to Haiti, I lived in the same village that I worked and spoke only Kreyol. I learned the inner workings of the community and never started a new program without their support. Following this method, my public health interventions were effective and sustainable. Living in the village is where I learned the true needs of the people, understood the fine line between religion and medicine and the importance of education. No one knows better the needs of the people than the people themselves. Once I figured this out, a seemingly impossible mission of preventing the diseases that ravage rural Haiti became a somewhat tangible task.
How did you become involved with your current project?
After winning a VH1 Do Something Award this past July, I was named a 2010 Top Five World Changer under 25 years old. This title came with a flood of support from all over including airline sponsorships to fly me to Haiti, free legal advice from lawyers, magazine and newspaper features and invitations to universities, high schools and conferences around the country to speak. It has truly been a dream to be able to share my passion for global health and politics and Haiti in particular with others.
I’ve begun bringing my public health training program to other regions of Haiti by partnering with well-established and respected non-profit organizations in rural Haiti who share similar interests of improving the health of Haitians through education. I am aiming to expand the programs nationally, advocating for a national public health education and training program to be run under the auspices of the Haitian government.
I’ve recently partnered with Hope for Haiti. Together we’re training dozens of community health workers mobilizing 5,000 students from 12 schools in southern Haiti, reaching an estimated 50,000 people. The programs are all Haitian run and taught and specific to each region.
What is the most difficult part about your global health work? The most rewarding?
The most difficult part of my work is convincing others that there is hope in my cause. My work comes down to believing that the standards of health care should be universal and that health care is a basic human right not to be denied of anyone. As you can imagine, this is not an easy idea to sell. Oddly enough, we convince ourselves that limited access to resources justify the health inequities that exist in our world. Rather than placing equal value on every person’s life, we deny those most basic of human needs to the world’s poorest.
The most rewarding part is knowing that by providing education and training to the youth in Haiti, my work can never be in vain. I don’t need to be there to know that it works. The ripple effect that comes with training youth is incredible as they go on to teach their friends, classmates, neighbors and family. My goal is to provide them with the tools needed to save their own lives, and empower them to take control over their own health. It works.
How does your global health work fit in your career plans?
Perfectly. I don’t see myself in a hospital or in an office. I want to travel the world and practice what I call “political medicine,” working with governments to develop sustainable and innovative methods to providing health care to the world’s poorest.
What has your experience been with global health at Brown (Framework, GHI etc)?
In a word, supportive. I have been surrounded by wonderful mentors who have supported and advocated for my continued work in Haiti while being in medical school whether by rescheduling an exam, or providing a travel grant. I don’t know of another school where the Dean of Medicine would take 45 minutes from his day to sit an entertain the ideas of a student, but it happened here. The people at Brown, the doctors, deans and staff alike have provided me with the guidance and advice I’ve needed to move forward and realize my dreams. I’m grateful to those around me especially my classmates, whose dedication and passion inspire me daily.