PATH’s president welcomes Creighton graduates to the world
On May 16, 2009, Dr. Christopher J. Elias, PATH’s president and CEO, received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Creighton University.
In his commencement address to graduates from the Creighton Schools of Dentistry, Medicine, Nursing, and Pharmacy and Health Professions, Dr. Elias talks about the stories that have shaped his own journey—and the role of new professionals in the health sciences in a world where health issues are truly global.
Commencement address, Creighton University, May 16, 2009
Thank you Father Schlegel, Doctor Zetterman, and Father Shanahan. And, especially, thank you Doctor Heaney, for welcoming me back to Creighton University and for this recognition today.
First, let me congratulate today’s graduates. I remember sitting in your place 26 years ago—feeling like one does the morning after a good, long run; aching a bit from the recent exertion, but already looking forward to the next sprint; feeling fit, prepared, and strong.
You’ve worked hard and greatly deserve this day of honor and celebration with your family and friends. Enjoy it. The world desperately needs your talents and your youthful energy, starting tomorrow. Well, maybe Monday.
Let me also congratulate the parents in the audience and thank you for your support of these wonderful young people.
Parenthood is an interesting journey. It demands an unconditional investment of all that you have—love, dedication, time, money, and guidance. The outcomes are unpredictable. Prior experience does not confidently predict future results. And the measurements of progress are almost always hard to decipher.
But today the indicators are clear. As we unleash this graduating class and all their creative energy into a world that needs every bit they have to offer, we can physically see the results. There is no higher praise than to say, “You have made the world a better place.” And, parents, “you have made the world a better place.”
My own parents are here today—Joe and Peggy Elias. Mom and Dad, without your emotional, financial, and spiritual support I would not have been able to walk the path I have taken. At critical times in my youth you could see further than me. You taught me a deep respect for people and—perhaps most importantly—you immunized me against cynicism. In many ways, this honorary degree is yours.
For the past nine years, I’ve been privileged to lead a global health nonprofit organization called PATH, which is headquartered in Seattle but works to improve the health of people around the world. We do this in three ways: by developing and testing affordable health technologies; by strengthening health systems; and by encouraging healthy behaviors. We seek to harness new science to develop vaccines for neglected diseases; fight major epidemics like AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis in some of the world’s poorest countries; and work to improve maternal and child health across the globe.
I love my job. As I travel around the world, I have gained a somewhat unique view of our shrinking, highly interconnected planet. It is a world full of both crisis and opportunity. I want to tell you three stories today, about crisis and opportunity and the lessons they teach. Lessons in boldness, service, and listening.
The first story is about being bold. It starts at my medical school commencement 26 years ago. I left the Civic Auditorium here in Omaha, celebrated with my family, and packed up for the drive to San Francisco, where I started my postgraduate training in internal medicine a few weeks later. Eight years at Creighton had prepared me well. I had the latest medical knowledge, emerging skills in clinical judgment, and a keen sense of social justice. As I drove west and traded the expanse of the prairie for the rolling fog of the San Francisco Bay, I did not suspect that I was driving toward an unfolding medical disaster that would encircle the globe.
It was 1983 and San Francisco was in the midst of a new pandemic. The name “acquired immune deficiency syndrome” (AIDS) had just joined the medical lexicon. But what caused it was still a mystery. HIV wasn’t discovered until the following year. Many of the patients I cared for in San Francisco were living—or, more accurately at that time, dying—with AIDS. It was hard to know what to do.
In 1983, Harrison’s textbook of internal medicine did not have a chapter on AIDS. If it did, it would have been quickly outdated as we discovered new manifestations of the syndrome every month. There was no PubMed, no Wikipedia, no Internet for that matter. The professors at Creighton had told me that medicine demanded lifelong learning. And from my first day as an intern, I knew they were right.
For the past 26 years my professional life has been hugely influenced by AIDS, the greatest health epidemic of our age. Holding close to Creighton’s message of lifelong learning, I have discovered much about the human immune system and the chinks in its’ otherwise amazing armor. More importantly, I have learned about the social vulnerabilities that make some people—and sometimes entire societies—especially susceptible to the havoc wreaked by this simple virus. Today, 33 million people are living with HIV infection. Most of them are in sub-Saharan Africa and half of them are under 25 years of age. Globally, most new infections are among women and girls. But biology doesn’t shape this pandemic, so much as poverty, stigma, and discrimination.
PATH has responded to the pandemic with all of our organizational force: developing low-cost tests to diagnose HIV and monitor its treatment, strengthening systems to prevent mother-to-child transmission, and implementing communications programs to help individuals and their communities adopt and sustain healthier behaviors. We have learned that policies—and politics—are important; that a collaborative approach across health disciplines is essential; and that we must dimension our response to the size of the problem, not to the presumed fiscal constraints of chronically underfunded health systems.
And, over the past six years, the global response to AIDS has seen considerable success. In 2002, fewer than 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa were receiving antiretroviral treatment. Today, largely through President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, more than two million people—about a third of those who need treatment—are receiving therapy and living much longer, healthier lives. African economies have begun to rebound. We still have a long way to go, but the results of bold action are indisputable.
The lesson I have taken from this experience shapes my work every day and can serve you as well: whatever you pursue, be bold enough to risk the very highest level of success. You’ll make mistakes, lots of them. But you will learn along the way.
So, be bold.
My second story also begins here at Creighton and concerns the long tradition of service that has characterized this institution. In my last year of medical school, I had an opportunity to work in a refugee camp in Thailand as part of a service learning program. It was my first time traveling outside of North America. It opened my eyes to the world I’d been studying in books. I saw for the first time some of those tropical disease pathogens whose lifecycles I had memorized for exams. More importantly, I met people much less fortunate than me who reached out with warmth, humor, and a tremendous depth of spirit.
It sparked my interest in global health and changed my life forever. I went back to work in the Thai refugee camps twice more, winding up as a medical coordinator at the age of 30, managing a large staff serving 70,000 refugees. If I trace back the management and leadership skills that make me effective in my job today, I find their roots in those years on the Thai–Cambodian border. For me, what started as a short term of voluntary service became a very rewarding professional career.
Now, I don’t tell this story to suggest that you should all follow a similar career path—although I hope that a few of you may do just that. I tell it to get you all thinking about the role of service in a life of fulfillment. And, let me be clear that I am not just talking to the graduates on this point. The Jesuit tradition has always emphasized the importance of service in bringing to life and consciousness the values of social justice and ethical practice. Service is clarifying. Approached with humility, it helps you sort values, priorities, and ideals.
Service is especially important in the times we face today. The headlines of the past year underscore a desperate need for clarity—in the conduct of business, of government, and in civic action. I’m personally convinced that a renewed commitment to service is major part of the way forward for our global community, and for the United States as a nation. My focus has been global, but there is obviously plenty of service that can be pursued here in the United States. President Obama has recently re-energized service programs like Vista and Americorps, challenging Americans to apply their talents to building our communities. Those communities could benefit from your passionate commitment. And, I guarantee you will benefit personally from the effort. You may just find your life’s work there.
The final story I want to tell you is about listening. Last December, my wife Therese, my daughter Tarie, and I spent some time in Burma—a place where poverty and corruption are held in place by some of the worst governance in the world. A year ago, the Irrawaddy Delta region of Burma was hit by Cyclone Nargis. The Burmese junta resisted international assistance, and six months after the cyclone, the delta was still a mess.
In the midst of this chaos, we met a local potter, who had a successful family business making jars, candlestick holders, and other household wares. In the wake of the cyclone he saw an opportunity to start making ceramic filters so people could produce safe water for their households. I met him just as his business was taking off. He was making a better income than before and was training another man to start a similar business since the demand for these water inexpensive filters was enormous. He wasn’t looking for a handout; he was looking for someone who would listen to his ideas. Who would hear him when he asked for access to the very simple equipment he needed to grow his enterprise.
This quiet, humble, yet confident man was applying good business principles to the solution of one of his community’s greatest needs and helping his neighbors to recover amidst unbelievable destruction. The reason he was able to do that is because, like all entrepreneurs, he could see right through a significant problem to a promising solution.
He reminded me that, while disease and wealth may have a very skewed global distribution, creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit are much more evenly spread. So, as you take up the mantle of a renewed commitment to service in these trying times, remember to inquire first—and listen carefully as those with local knowledge and insight respond. Their voices are often soft, but their ideas are very powerful. And they need to be heard.
A world of insurmountable opportunities
Now, graduates, most of you won’t remember the comic strip character Pogo. I know many of the parents and faculty will, however. Pogo was the Doonesbury of his time and would fit right in with today’s culture of text messages and Twitter. I don’t think Pogo ever said anything longer than 140 characters. A wide-eyed Pogo once observed, “We are confronted by insurmountable opportunities.” Choosing among the opportunities available to you is important, difficult work. A thousand worthy pursuits clamor for your attention. It can be overwhelming to sift through the possibilities.
I have shared just a few stories with you from my own journey that began where you are today. Your journey is just beginning, your stories have yet to be written. Your family and friends can’t wait to see the choices you’ll make during the balance of this young century, which already poses so many profound challenges and “insurmountable opportunities.”
I do know, however, that Creighton University has prepared you well for exploring and making those choices in the days and years to come. And, I am confident that you will discern your own best path in life.
You will learn many other lessons, but these are the most important.