Medicine Alumni Global Awards: Richard Deckelbaum
“Before I embarked on a career in academic medicine, I wanted experience in less than ideal settings.” For McGill alum Richard Deckelbaum, BSc’63, MDCM’67, these “less than ideal settings” have spawned a lifelong pursuit of serving the underserved and training future clinicians and scientists to be proponents of global health. His unfaltering dedication and unyielding empathy to help those in need earned him McGill’s 2011 Medicine Alumni Global (MAG) Community Service Award.
Igniting his desire to work with underserved communities was a clerkship in the Grenfell Mission, for which Deckelbaum flew to the northern tip of Newfoundland. “It was pretty remote and only accessible by flight,” he explains. “I delivered a baby to a 14-year-old girl and she was so grateful, she named the baby after me.”
As Deckelbaum was wrapping up medical school, a chance encounter at Montreal’s Expo 67 took him halfway around the world. “I met a hostess for the Israeli Pavilion, and happily followed her to Jerusalem where we eventually married,” he remembers fondly. After a year of residency in pediatrics, he, together with his new wife Kaya Rosenberg, moved to the Zambian countryside to provide medical services to remote clinics near the border of Malawi. Flying in for a week or two at a time to a village without a real runway, Deckelbaum was not only the local doctor, but taught villagers about nutrition and agriculture. His experience was far from “ideal” in the lofty sense of the word. “I remember performing a subdural hemmorhage drain on a baby with my wife holding him in her lap while we drove to the nearest hospital, which was five hours away.” Challenged by meagre resources, he used a sterilized carpenter drill to create the burr hole in the baby’s head.
Working in these remote settings helped Deckelbaum evolve his way of thinking about health delivery in developing countries and communities in need. “How do you work when you don’t have the resources? You can’t just say, ‘I can’t.’ You figure out a way to do it.”
While still a pediatric resident, he helped establish the first children’s hospital on the West Bank in Ramallah in the early 1970s. But a university career was calling and he soon embarked on his path to become an academic. Today, he is professor of pediatrics, professor of epidemiology and the Robert R. Williams Professor of Nutrition, as well as director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University. Among his plethora of titles, Deckelbaum is also president of the Global Health Education Consortium, which brings together health professionals, educators, students and institutions committed to improving the ability of the global workforce to meet the needs of underserved populations. Ardent about investigative medicine, his research focuses on the molecular biology of fatty acids found in fish oils and their beneficial effects in preventing cardiovascular disease and acting as anti-inflammatory agents.
From Newfoundland to the Middle East and Africa, Deckelbaum’s experience in his over 40-year career has caused him to think differently about traditional medical training. Believing that it should encompass more than theoretical knowledge about illness and disease from a Western perspective, he delves into issues of global health importance, such as the political, environmental, economic and cultural factors that impact the health of individuals and populations. This belief culminated in the creation of the Medical School for International Health at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-sheva, Israel, the first-ever medical school with a required curriculum in global health incorporated into all four years of study. Developed in collaboration with Columbia University Medical Center in 1996, he now directs the Columbia side of the program, which graduated its first class in 2002.
“It’s a very distinct medical school because the students are trained to be doctors, but there’s a major inculcation of skills, attitude and knowledge relating to population health, emergency response and health economics. We aim to train global health practitioners,” he explains.
Fusing his two passions – basic science and global health education – Deckelbaum looks to integrate scientific study with capacity building in global health and health education. Looking to the future, he plans to facilitate multi-institutional PhD programs in nutritional sciences in Eastern Africa.
Upon hearing that he was being honoured with the MAG Community Service Award, Deckelbaum, with his trademark humility, simply said, “You do a lot of things and it’s nice to know that other people appreciate it too.”