Medicine Iowa

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Iowa City, Iowa
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Joshua White: Bringing quality health care to Haiti

The Carver College of Medicine graduate wanted to pursue emergency medicine, but his career took him to a country in crisis.

A few years after graduating from the Carver College of Medicine, Joshua White (01MD) teamed up with one of his fellow medical school graduates, Chris Buresh (12MPH, 01MD, 06R), to serve the people of Haiti.  

Buresh had previously traveled to the country with a volunteer group and wanted to go back. In 2004, he asked White to join because they desperately needed qualified doctors.

Joshua White, MD in office.

That trip evolved into a massive undertaking as White and Buresh realized there was a greater need for quality health care for Haitians.  

“We ultimately decided there was a better way, and if it was going to get done, we had to do it,” White says.  

In 2009, they co-founded the Community Health Initiative in Haiti—an effort that provides primary care for some of the country’s most remote populations.  

After Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, Buresh and White also established a primitive field hospital and led a team that saw more than 30,000 Haitian patients, performed over 800 surgeries, and delivered more than 250 babies.  

Today, while the work of the Community Health Initiative continues, White has stepped away from daily operations. The initiative has shifted from being mostly led by a U.S.-based team to a Haitian model of care, he says, which is particularly critical now that it’s difficult for outsiders to get into the country due to its ongoing socioeconomic and political crisis.  

THE IMPACT OF A GOOD TEACHER

White currently serves as the chief medical officer for Gifford Health Care in Randolph, Vermont. He also prioritizes mentoring medical students through any opportunity he can, including bedside teaching in the emergency room.

“I still make a point to invest in teaching, because I think it makes me a better clinician,” White says. “It’s an important part of my continued practice.”

Some of White’s own teachers served as inspiration for his medical pursuits. He had his sights set on the field of medicine from an early age, in part because of the influence of his grandfather, a family doctor in Newton, Iowa. He also enjoyed his biology courses throughout middle school and high school.  

The Decorah, Iowa, native attended Luther College for his undergraduate studies, knowing its biology program at the time was a pipeline into the Carver College of Medicine.  

“That turned out to be a successful route for me,” White says.  

During medical school, White garnered an appreciation for the health care system and grasped its complexity. He was also involved in the American Medical Student Association, job-shadowed in the anesthesiology department, and worked nationally with emergency medicine student groups.

“I think my experience in the Carver College of Medicine gave me the foundation I needed to launch all my escapades and do all these things,” White says. “I had a lot of mentors there who had a big influence on me.”

One professor, in particular, who made an impact on White was surgeon Gerald Kealey, MD (69MD, 77R). White recalls when he was on the burn unit, Kealey would walk into the operating room for a case and quote something that he’d read the night before. Oftentimes it’d be high-brow literature, like Shakespeare, and he’d quiz the students on where the quote was from. White and his classmates were stunned that he even had the time for such heavy reading.  

“He’d leave the burn unit at 7 p.m. and be back before 5 a.m., and he had read Othello,” White marvels.  

White also remembers Kealey’s interactions with patients. He’d go into a family meeting with a burn patient and show genuine compassion while also gently scolding along the lines of, “This team has put in hundreds of hours and multiple surgeries to help you. Are you going to go home and smoke again?”  

“We came to appreciate that medicine was a lot more than the paragraph in the textbook,” White says. “That was an early glimpse into what I consider the future of medicine with outcome-based care and value-based care.”

When White looks back on his early career, he realizes that some of his major accomplishments were never part of his initial plan. He wanted to pursue emergency medicine, but he never could have imagined going to Haiti or overseeing a medical team.  

“Life has been funny and full of surprises,” he says. “But I don't know that I’d want to be anywhere else right now.”

Photos submitted by Joshua White.

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