Dressed in scrubs, slightly tight around her second-trimester-pregnant belly, Julie Herlihy, walked briskly down the corridor of the pediatrics unit of the Boston Medical Centre to room number 10. Her first patients for the day, a Somalian family waited for her in the room with two of their ten children. The wife was dressed in a burkha while cradling the infant and the husband stared blankly at the wall in front of him. Their elder boy, not older than four, sat in a chair swinging his legs violently. The family broke out in a nervous smile when Julie entered unable to say anything because they can’t speak English. Julie returned their smile with a bigger one, a motherly tap on the little boy’s back and lots of welcoming words, which the family didn’t understand but responded to with an obvious sense of comfort and trust. Few minutes later, with help from a telephone translator, the children were thoroughly examined, their medical needs met, the family’s insurance sorted out, a breast pump was ordered and the family left with a look of satisfaction on their face.
This was one of many cases Julie tended to on that day. All her cases were met with the same smile and warmth on a bespectacled face adorned with a pair of simple silver hoops. She eased her way through every case without being limited by cultural, racial and language challenges presented by her patients. They all left smiling as though she had magically banished their illnesses away.
In her third year of residency, Julie Herlihy now 33 years old, has already spent several years in Africa teaching and volunteering with communities in Zimbabwe and Zambia. An east coast girl, Julie first left for Africa at the young age of 20 on a teacher exchange programme teaching Biology to high school students, only to discover a pleasant surprise. “The teachers there were way better than me”, she said with a laugh. Her journey then took her to the local public health clinic where she found herself learning and teaching women and children about primary care. All the while she lived with the village chief and his family, who wanted her to be under their wing due to their suspicions about foreigners. At the end of her six months, the chief, father to 14 and grandfather to over a 100, held a formal ceremony adopting Julie as his Manini, his last born.
Julie returned from Africa and spent the next decade designing curriculum for public health workers in refugee communities, joining Medical School at University of Massachusetts, obtaining a Masters from the Harvard School of Public Health and travelling back and forth to Zambia. Her love for the country and its people continued to grow as she involved herself in care for people with HIV. She worked with local communities and women to help empower their abilities to provide primary care in areas such as infant and child care, women’s health and nutrition. At a young age Julie had developed cross-cultural skills which taught her how to work and appreciate foreign customs while working with the community. This white American girl also learnt how to cook on a fire, live without water and electricity and bathe out of a well.
When asked how she first developed her passion for Africa, Julie confesses that there isn’t any one particular reason. Fascinated by the thought of going to the continent, she called up the Peace Corps at the age of nine begging them to enroll her. Today she is clearly satisfied with herself for living out her childhood dream.
The value she adds to the pediatric clinic is clearly notable. “If I could spend a day observing her, I would learn quite a bit myself,” said Dr Jose-Alberto Betances, Clinic Director of the Pediatric Primary Care Unit at BMC. Dr Megan Sandel, one of the preceptors at the clinic adds that Julie’s patients are very loyal to her. “We get a lot of patients from refugee and immigrant communities with different medical issues, especially trauma being a big issue. Julie asks questions sensitively. She has both, skill sets of a scientific mind and a social perspective.” Dr Sandel further comments that “She (Julie) is laser-focussed on what she wants. That makes her very unusual.”
This is not the end of the road for Julie. Sitting in her office, one can tell that her mind is exploring the next place she wants to visit. “Ethiopia” she says, “they have different history from the rest of Africa.” One can tell that her mind is already travelling across the Atlantic.