From his Princeton roots to his experiences as a pediatrician, public health practitioner and journalist, Rich Besser shares stories and lessons from a career dedicated to service in this Q&A.
Rich Besser was a fourth-year medical student when he found himself performing his first (and last!) solo emergency Cesarean section at a hospital tucked within a rural Himalayan village in Manali, India.
He had come to Lady Willingdon Hospital eager to learn about health problems facing people within the developing world, and worked under a gifted local surgeon, Dr. George “Laji” Varghese. Providing care for the underserved population there was no small feat. For instance, the power would often go out during surgeries, requiring someone to hold a flashlight over the operating table.
Dr. Laji one day left Rich in charge as he departed for a week-long meeting. Before leaving, as a precaution, he walked Rich through how to perform an emergency Cesarean section since they were high up in the mountains and hours away from the next healthcare facility.
Sure enough, a few days later a woman who’d struggled through labor for over a day arrived. A senior nurse noted that the baby’s heart didn’t sound good.
Rich then began his first operation to the loud chanting prayers of staff who’d filled the church on hospital grounds. After several tense minutes, a healthy baby girl was born. As he handed the new mother her baby, Rich recalls how the experience filled him with an exhilarating sense of being able to face any challenge.
Each challenge is an opportunity. I ask myself, what can I learn from this? How can I use the lessons to make the world a better place?
And the challenges have come throughout his career which has spanned clinical medicine, academia, public health, and journalism.
He’s embraced them all, noting “Each challenge is an opportunity. I ask myself, what can I learn from this? How can I use the lessons to make the world a better place?”
As he takes the helm of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Rich shares more about the experiences that have shaped his path in the following Q&A.
You’re a native of Princeton, New Jersey! How does it feel to return home?
There’s something very comforting about coming home. I grew up here in Princeton and went through the township public school system. My parents have lived here for 56 years and I’m glad to be near them again. In fact my father, a gynecologist, delivered some of the staff who work here at the Foundation! If you were born in Princeton in the 60s to mid-70s there’s a good chance that my dad or one of his partners delivered you. I’ve actually run into staff who say, “Your dad delivered me!” and I say, “Yeah, he delivered me too!”
At 6’6”, you must have been a starter on your high school basketball team!
No, actually I’m terrible at basketball! In fact while I was acting director at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), I ran into President Obama following a White House briefing about the H1N1 swine flu outbreak back in 2009. He noted, “You’re much taller in person than you look on TV. You should join our basketball team.” When I shared that basketball wasn’t my strong suit, he reassured me, “It’s OK. You can crowd the lane and scare the other players.”
Given how busy you are, how do you fit physical activity into your daily life?
While I’m not a star athlete, I do try to incorporate daily physical activity into my routine. I ride my bike, play tennis, do yoga and work out. It’s important to build activity into your routine and for me that means hitting the gym before work. To build a Culture of Health, I believe it’s important to model the behavior we want to see. This was also my approach as a pediatrician. I tell everyone to incorporate a routine that works. Start small and build from there.
A 5-minute lunchtime walk is a great way to get started. Every little bit counts.
Although you’ve spent most of your career in public health, you trained as a pediatrician and have always made time for seeing patients. Why is that so important to you?
I’ve always been attracted to the field of pediatrics. I love connecting with kids of different ages. Being a pediatrician lets you stay in touch with your inner child. Pediatrics is also about the future, about potential and about making a difference early on. It’s about setting a course for life. It’s about prevention. All of those things have attracted me to public health as well.
You’ve volunteered at the Children’s Aid Society which helps children, many in the foster care system, succeed and thrive. How did that work underscore the importance of having access to safe and healthy places to live, learn, and play?
Every Friday I took the 15-minute subway ride from my office near Lincoln Center up to the Children’s Aid Society Clinic at the Milbank Center in Harlem. I was always deeply struck by how drastically different the lives of children living around my office in mid-town were compared to those at the clinic, many of whom were in family foster care.
I remember a devoted grandmother who regularly trekked over an hour with her two grandkids from Staten Island to visit us. I asked her how they got physical activity and she said she couldn’t afford an exercise program for them. Watching her face light up when the nurse informed her that fees for the swimming program at the Center were waived for its patients was incredibly rewarding.
Imagine what it feels like when you know your kids need good schools, nutritious food and safe places to play, but you can’t access those things because of your circumstances. It’s just heartbreaking! Yet time and time again, I watched people overcome incredible obstacles to give their children opportunities to thrive.
Can you share more about why commitment to service is so deeply ingrained?
My parents were wonderful role models who demonstrated the importance of giving back and volunteering. For example, my father and mother (a social worker) would spend several weeks each summer on a Navajo reservation providing care to those living there. I joined them once and fondly remember attending a rattlesnake ceremony and watching people in their traditional costumes celebrating their culture at a jamboree. More importantly, I loved seeing the respect my parents showed for the community in which they were working.
These early experiences taught me the value of getting closer to the communities we serve. While I was the pediatric residency director at the University of California, San Diego, I volunteered each week at St. Vincent De Paul, a homeless clinic. I also helped establish a pediatric clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, which is just 20 minutes away from San Diego. I wanted our residents—who were surrounded by privilege—to develop a deep understanding of extreme poverty. So I brought them to the clinic which was located at the edge of a large garbage dump where shanty town communities had sprung up so people could rummage for items to sell. The residents valued the immersive experience which opened their eyes to issues surrounding poverty and the ongoing conditions and struggles these patients faced day in and day out.
I loved seeing the respect my parents showed for the community in which they were working.
You believe in the power of stories to help others connect to pressing public health issues. Can you share an example of when a story helped change the perception of a public health problem?
I’ve definitely found that putting a face on pressing problems through story is a powerful way to engage audiences and influence outcomes. At ABC News, for instance, I was one of the first American TV journalists to visit Liberia in late August of 2014 to cover the Ebola crisis. I visited West Point, a poor, disenfranchised community within Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia. Despite the lack of evidence for needing to do so, it was roped off and placed under a military enforced quarantine. This neighborhood was singled out and stigmatized despite many Ebola cases beyond it. I talked through a fence to frustrated people who were trapped for days, including an anguished young man who happened to be visiting West Point to check on family when the quarantine suddenly took effect. I believe that shining a light on West Point’s ordeal helped end the mass quarantine—which didn’t make any sense from a public health perspective and actually did more harm by stigmatizing the community and stoking irrational fear.
But it also challenged the notion that it takes outside expertise to address a crisis. If you provide resources, locals within a community will often have solutions that are far better than outsiders can provide. And this lesson applies to work across public health and here at the Foundation. We can’t go into communities and say we have the solution. We need to work together with communities in shaping solutions that address their own unique needs and circumstances.
We can’t go into communities and say we have the solution. We need to work together with communities in shaping solutions that address their own unique needs and circumstances.
You’ve clearly had an incredibly diverse career. What eventually led you to the Foundation?
I loved the people and passion when I was at the CDC. In 2009, during the H1N1 swine flu epidemic, communications was key to our strategy. I’d empower and build trust with the public through daily press briefings where I shared what we knew, when we knew it, and explained steps they could take to protect themselves. Polling showed that they were listening and taking measures to safeguard their health. The results convinced me more than ever in the power of communications to educate and influence behavior.
So when ABC took note of my briefings and offered me a job, I saw it as an opportunity to practice public health in front of the camera. Each day I could give millions of Americans medical information in plain English to help them make informed decisions about their health.
But I grew to miss working with an organization whose staff solely focus on health and improving lives for the better. And I wanted to be in a setting that helps me achieve even bigger and better impact.
And our Culture of Health mission and the staff at the Foundation are all about impact on a big scale.
Is there an additional lesson you’ve learned along the way that you’d like to share?
Idealism isn’t just for the young! I’ve witnessed many people dedicate their lives to making the world a better place and succeed. It’s the power of one person working with others. If enough people are committed to improving the world, there’s so much we can achieve together.