How I’m Learning to Bridge the Global Healthcare Divide

By Lisa Arfaa

It’s personal right? Why we do what we do? There is always a backstory to what drives our passion, including mine for building a global health organization that ensures equal access to top-notch surgical care for every person in the world.

My father came to the U.S. from Tehran in 1962. He was a surgeon outside D.C., a general surgeon who specialized in cancer. He commanded the respect and adoration of everyone he encountered, from the janitors and administrators and nurses in the hospitals where he worked, to the many hundreds of patients he gently delved inside to fix. I saw him save lives time and time again. My mother was a registered nurse, then a lawyer who advocated for the rights of women and the homeless.

I wanted to be a surgeon, mostly because my Dad and my Mom demonstrated great fulfillment from saving others’ lives. But when I visited the OR, the four or five times my Dad took me along, I would get queasy. I’d have to leave the room. Despite this, I studied pre-med, in undergrad, convinced I could get over the weak stomach. But I couldn’t. I didn’t. I went into politics instead, as I had also been wowed growing up hearing my father’s story of the important posts his family had back in Tehran, like the Minister of Agriculture under the Shah and the important role my mother’s father played as a Navy JAG conducting the Iwo Jima trials in Tokyo.

Fast forward to this past fall, to October 13, 2015, when I accepted the position of President and CEO of global health nonprofit, Physicians for Peace, an organization that provides medical training and builds capacity for surgical care in developing countries. Suddenly, it all made sense. My early understanding of the importance of surgery, my experience on Capitol Hill lobbying and fundraising for important health issues with leaders including then Congressmen Ron Wyden and Chuck Schumer, my communication experience with health and education nonprofits, my work with Jack Welch building a management training program…Here was an opportunity to put it all together to ensure that people could receive the kind of care my father gave to his patients and the kind of care my mother gave to her clients, the kind of care that everyone deserves.

What’s exciting about leading a global healthcare organization now, in this digital age, in this time when the ability to share information has shrunk the world and grown our interdependence, is that I truly believe health disparities are preventable. It’s not a question of if we can give people access to quality surgical care, it’s just a question of how.

I believe so much in the mission of Physicians for Peace, in its strategy to “teach one, heal many.” And the how we do that is becoming more and more clear every day through conversations I’m having with leaders in related and even seemingly unrelated fields. How do we best use the latest mobile technology and video conferencing to expand our training efforts? How do we collaborate with foreign government agencies to strengthen their technical knowledge and policies? How do we help educate to ensure that surgical care isn’t undermined by unsafe water and hygiene conditions? What needs to be in place to prevent the spread of disease?

I want to share these conversations I have with the best “out-of-the-box” thinkers in the world, to give you a front-row seat as we solve the great global injustice of unequal healthcare. I invite you to stay tuned, to watch and read about this important journey, a journey we’ve dubbed, “Lisa’s Learning Tour.” It’ll be fascinating, and good for the world’s health.

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