Dr. Vanessa Kerry with Secretary John Kerry
Secretary John Kerry (JK): Despite coming from a family oriented toward social sciences and arts, you were always interested in science. When did it really become clear that you wanted to be a doctor and that was your path? What led you to take that a step further and become an advocate.
Dr. Vanessa Kerry (VK): I was always scientifically oriented. You remember: I used to stare at ants in the driveway. My interest in medicine really emerged in 7th grade when I dissected a frog. I was blown away by the intricacies of what was inside and the beauty of the human (well, frog, initially) system. I know I have shared with you how powerful our family trip to Vietnam was when I was 14. It stands out as a defining experience. I remember being jarred by the extent of how poor people were — running water was hard to come by, and we met adults who had lived their entire now-adult lives in an orphanage. The shock of that experience stuck with me. Raised by parents who were devoted to advocating for the disenfranchised, I knew there was no question that I needed to try to help solve some of the world’s big challenges. So I became a doctor, and then an advocate for my patients and ultimately, for healthy children and families everywhere. I love practicing medicine, and your devotion to public service helped me see that being an advocate is an important way to bring about positive changes in the world. With my own family now, I worry about families who do not have access to resources or the opportunity to thrive and survive that we have. It pains me very deeply. So I know this is right where I need to be, combining my medical background with an opportunity to improve the health of all of the world’s families.
JK: I have seen you spend hours in the hospital, in addition to almost as many hours on the road as me! Why do you continue to practice medicine, in addition to the work you do for Seed? And has being a mom changed your outlook on your work and on the world?
VK: By staying vested in being a physician, I am able to maintain a deep and current understanding of the areas where we can make small changes that will ultimately make a big difference. I am cognizant of the vulnerability of poor health in a very real way. It’s so important that medicine and science inform global health, and I never want to lose touch with that. But at the same time, this work requires really hearing from the communities we serve and understanding their needs, their context, and their stories. You’ve given me a gift as a role model for work in public service, and I hope and want to offer that to my children.
Of course — as you know — the hours can be long on top of the demands of being a parent. Being a mom is my most important and cherished role, and you’ve taught me how possible it is to be both a parent and a career professional. In many ways, because I started Seed just weeks before Alexander was born, the organization is like another of my children, and my work for families everywhere is so intertwined with my love and commitment to my children and family. Livia and Alexander have made me so much more acutely aware of suffering, to loss, and to inequity.
And so I do believe work in the medical field is more than a job — it’s a calling that moves me to try and make the biggest impact I can. It’s an honor to take care of patients, and they help me be a better, more effective advocate. I want the same thing that any parent would: for all families to thrive. I’m glad that through Seed, I can do my small part to help create that future.
JK: If you could ask for one thing to advance your global health work and change the lives of families, what would it be?
VK: Bluntly? One of the most important things is funding. And funding work such as training medical and nursing educators, like what we do at Seed, isn’t always seen as “sexy.” But the returns on investing in a stronger health workforce — stronger global economies, increased global and domestic security, improved health at home and around the world — are undeniable. There has to be greater recognition that skilled health workers are truly the backbone of a healthy world and a prerequisite to any enduring improvements in human wellbeing. We need more nurses to walk the halls of the clinics and to deliver life-saving vaccines. We need more doctors to help communities recognize an outbreak, sound the alarm, and help mount the response. We need more midwives to deliver happy, healthy babies to happy, healthy new moms. And that’s all going to require governments and private sector partners to invest even more in training and teaching health workers — a critical investment, even if it’s not the most glamorous.
JK: What change do you want to see happen, in 5 years, and then again in 10 years?
VK: There are two standards of care in the world, and this creates a fundamental issue that we have acclimated to a little too readily. And so while a mom dying in childbirth still happens in countries like the U.S., it’s rare. But in other parts of the world, there are still way too many moms who don’t survive pregnancy — nearly one Tanzanian mother dies every hour. And there are people dying from diseases that are preventable and survivable because they live in communities that lack access to quality care led by skilled health professionals. Health workers save lives, but there just aren’t enough of them to deal with the health needs of the world. In five years, I’d like to see a new generation of health professionals working in their home health systems and teaching their successors, which would go a long way toward addressing the global shortage of health workers. In ten years, I want see these gaps rapidly closing so every single family can have access to better health, opportunity for an education, and a chance to participate in the global community if they so choose. Good health is an essential foundation, and from that all else can follow.
VK: Now, let me ask you a question, dad! What are you most proud of having accomplished? And when you think about your work and all you have done in your forty-plus years of public service — my entire lifetime — what do you hope most for the future, for all families?
JK: I’m not yet at the point in my life where I’m sitting back and thinking too much about “what I’m proud of”— I’d like to think that all of us have plenty more to contribute, frankly today more than ever, when so much change is coming at people at a digital pace. But you ask a really good question about how we organize public policy — and organizing it to measure outcomes not just for nations or political systems, but by how we actually empower families, is a pretty good start. That’s a universal yardstick.
I think the way I’d look back at it is, you have two separate but connected areas where I spent a lot of time working.
The first is at home — in a really practical, immediate, walk-the-talk kind of way. I always thought if we’re going to push businesses to see it in their interests to make early childhood education accessible and child care affordable, it’s probably a good start to make sure we’re keeping faith with our own team in government. In the years I was in the Senate, I worked hard to be creative about leave and flexibility, and developed a whole bunch of initiatives because I wanted people who worked with me to have the balance they needed. Sometimes I also found I just had to pry certain people away from their desks. But I also found that the best employees had that balance, and that it also helped with retention — keeping the best people on board — so frankly it was about effectiveness, too.
One of the things I thought a lot about when I became Secretary of State was: “How do we avoid burning out our most important asset — our people?” The State Department is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Every year, our foreign service, civil service, and local staff are asked to go farther and do more — and believe me, it takes a toll. And it can put a great deal of strain on families. It catches up with you. None of us is superhuman.
So I was committed as Secretary to making sure that our employees and their families could find balance in their lives, and I wanted it to be more than a slogan. So we got practical. The first was our pilot project on back-up care. We contracted with an online service that allows you to access quality back-up care from a vetted pool of candidates. If your babysitter is sick, if the person caring for your elderly parents can’t come in that day, if you’re in need of assistance, the new pilot allowed you to find someone to fill in at a moment’s notice. We also tried to do more to support job shares and to make it easier for bureaus to create more job-share opportunities, which gives people more flexibility in their lives. Every survey shows how important this is to keep talent and attract the next generation of talent. That’s why we also created a new childcare center right next door to the Harry S. Truman building as part of the new Consular Affairs building.
But then on a global stage, I absolutely think you need to apply that same measure. On a very personal level, I will never forget the pain in the eyes of people separated from their families. In Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian’s case, that period of hard waiting lasted 545 days for release from an Iranian prison so he could be reunited with his family. Jason didn’t go to Iran to advance an ideology or make a political point. He went there to explain to his own country what life was really like in the country of his ancestry. Jason was simply doing what reporters do. So I will tell you frankly that the day we got him home was probably the day I enjoyed most as Secretary of State. I felt the same way about Alan Gross and his family after years lost in a Cuban prison cell. The resilience, the determination to see his family again — you never forget it.
And you try to always keep in mind in public policy that though you may never meet them — these are real people with real families whose lives hang in the balance. Refugees coming out of Syria and Iraq, interpreters from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who worked by our side when it was tough and who count on us to cut through red tape and let them get that visa and start their lives over in the United States — or the possibility of an AIDS-free generation in Africa of kids being born to HIV+ mothers who will actually live full lives with mothers who are on antivirals so they will live and be there for their kids. Ten years ago, fifteen years ago -—that was unheard of. AIDS in Africa was still a death sentence. Not anymore. These are all the measures of what we can do in the world — and what people at the State Department and USAID do every day, and it should be valued. We should keep faith with them and their efforts because guess what — it makes us safer as a country whether we know it or not.
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Through decades of public service, Secretary John Kerry has been a passionate and compassionate advocate for diplomacy, development, and the well-being of families around the world.
A rising leader in a new generation of public health champions, Seed Global Health CEO Dr. Vanessa Kerry has “taken the baton” from her father, and inspired by her own husband and two children, is working toward a healthier world for her family and every family, everywhere.