Public Health Heroes Who Roll Up Their Sleeves and Get the Job Done

New York City Public Health Commissioner Mary Bassett, third from left, wears a “condom crown” in celebration of World Aids Day, December 1, 2014.  The NYC Department of Health hosted the Red Ball at the OUT Hotel and unveiled a new report showing that HIV diagnoses are at an all-time low.
New York City Public Health Commissioner Mary Bassett, third from left, wears a “condom crown” in celebration of World Aids Day, December 1, 2014. The NYC Department of Health hosted the Red Ball at the OUT Hotel and unveiled a new report showing that HIV diagnoses are at an all-time low.

Gun violence. Racial profiling. Ebola. These three topics, scary and unsettling at both the personal and public health level, have dominated newsfeeds this past year. Though very different, each presents daunting challenges that go wide and deep. Our lineup of TEDMED 2015 speakers includes three individuals willing to face them directly and put themselves on the frontlines of meaningful change.

After a decade in prison, Sam Vaughn now serves as a mentor committed to using gentleness and love to help violence-prone young men visualize a better life and then develop the skills that will allow them to live it. It’s working: more than 80% of the youth in his program in Richmond, Calif., have stayed away from gun violence and the city’s homicide rate has plummeted (so much so that Richmond is no longer ranked among America’s 10 most dangerous cities!). Sam’s motivation is to abolish separatism, he says: “Dr. King said an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere. We have lost sight of this in America and most people ignore what’s going on around them until it affects them personally. I was taught that silence is a form of consent.”

As New York City Public Health Commissioner, Mary Bassett became a major supporter of the “BlackLivesMatter” movement. She called for the medical community to become more deeply engaged, using her position to tackle institutional racism. She has also pushed for higher cigarette taxes and supported New York City’s ban of artificial trans fats in restaurants. Focused on exploding technocratic approaches to public health to reveal its roots in social justice, Mary says the idea that public health is a reflection of individual behaviors is outdated. “Systems reinforcing discrimination and oppression harm health,” she says. “I am breaking through silence by explicitly naming racism as a key injustice and determinant of poor health.” Mary has been an activist her entire adult life: She volunteered at a Black Panther Clinic while a student at Radcliffe and also spent 17 years on the medical faculty at the University of Zimbabwe, where she developed one of that country’s first HIV awareness programs.

Also an early warrior against HIV, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Tony Fauci directs a large HIV/AIDS laboratory, oversees a $4.4 billion research portfolio and has personally cared for AIDS patients. A key advisor to the White House and Department of Health and Human Services on global AIDS issues, and on preparedness against emerging infectious disease threats, earlier this year Tony reserved two hours of his workday to personally care for a U.S. health care worker who became infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone. “I believe that one gets unique insights into disease when you actually physically interact with patients,” he says. He also wanted to show his staff that he wouldn’t ask them to do anything he wouldn’t do himself and, he says, “it is very exciting and gratifying to participate in saving someone’s life.”