One-on-one with IUSM alumnus Dr. Kent Brantly

May 21, 2015

Kent Brantly, M.D., the 2015 IUSM commencement speaker and a 2009 IUSM graduate, stopped by to chat with InScope May 9 before his presentation. Excerpts of the interview follow and links to clips from the interview are below.

Kent Brantly, M.D. | Photo By Tim Yates, IU School of Medicine

InScope: When did you decide on a career in global medicine and what sparked that interest?

Dr. Brantly: I really was headed to a career in global medicine from the very beginning. I went into the profession of medicine because I wanted to serve people cross-culturally in a place of great need. I went to a Christian university where I majored in biblical texts, and I sought out medicine to gain a skill set to offer people service, and that really was my motivation for becoming a doctor in the first place.

I was motivated by my Christian faith to serve the most vulnerable among us, and I chose medicine as my route for doing that.

InScope: If a person is interested in pursuing a similar mission, global humanitarian medical service, what traits, experiences and skills would serve them well?

Dr. Brantly: I think the number one trait of people who are successful, or useful in the field of global health, is flexibility. You’ve got to be flexible. Anyone who has spent any time overseas or tried to practice medicine in an under-resourced setting, like so much of the world, they understand that flexibility is key. Because you won’t have the things you want, you won’t have the things you need, schedules won’t go as planned, and you’ve got to just go with the flow, roll with the punches and be flexible.

InScope: How did your experiences at the IU School of Medicine prepare you for your medical and humanitarian career?

Dr. Brantly: First, I don’t think I can make a distinction between my medical and my humanitarian career. I think those two are rolled together in one. There are a lot of things at IU that helped prepare me for my career. From the earliest parts of first year, I sought out and was encountered by people and organizations that helped nurture what I saw as my calling in life.

I worked with Dr. Javier Sevilla learning some medical Spanish and talking about health care for the Latino population here in Indianapolis as well as in Latin America. I had opportunities all along the way, like in second year when I went on a trip with Global Health Outreach with several of my classmates and some fourth-year students. We went to Nicaragua and worked side by side with physicians doing mobile clinics in some rural villages there. 

There were so many experiences like that and mentors among the faculty at IU who helped nurture the calling I had in my life and also helped prepare me for my career. People like Dr. David Matthews, who spends a lot of time doing surgery in Kenya, as well as here at the (Roudebush) VA (Medical Center) hospital, and people like Dr. Charles Kelley and Dr. Lorraine Kelley, who welcome students into their home to have conversations about medicine, but also about faith and about being a whole person and not compartmentalizing your life into "this is my career in medicine, this is my career as a humanitarian, this is my religious life, this is my personal life," but helping foster a real holistic approach to life to medicine.

InScope: If you could give a piece of advice to a medical student struggling to figure out what specialty to choose, what would you say?

Dr. Brantly: If I had to give one piece of advice to a student trying to decide on a specialty, I think I would tell them, 'do what you enjoy.' You’re going to have a long career; choose the thing that you enjoy. You are going to be a better physician if you enjoy your work, whatever specialty that is.

InScope: You became the unexpected face of Ebola for the world to some degree. Are you comfortable with that distinction?

Dr. Brantly: I sure didn’t intend to become the face of Ebola for the world, but if Ebola needs a face in order to get people to take action, then I’m honored to be able to stand in that spot for a little while. I’m thankful that, at least in part, through my and Nancy’s situation, attention was turned to West Africa. And the international community began to step up in ways that were absolutely essential in trying to rein in this virus and bring the outbreak under control.

InScope: Ebola isn’t the biggest threat to Liberians, but what is the biggest health threat?

Dr. Brantly: It’s hard to narrow it down to one single biggest health threat in Liberia or sub-Saharan Africa or any area of the world like that. There are lots more diseases that kill more people than Ebola. But really if you want to talk about what is the greatest need for advancing health or what is the thing for which the lack of leads to death for most people, I think the first thing you talk about is electricity and clean water. If you have electricity then you can set up labs to run sophisticated diagnostic equipment and you can run water purification systems and you can change people’s lifestyles so they don’t have to walk three miles a day to get a bucket of water. They can turn on the spigot and have it come to them because it’s been purified and pumped with electricity to them. And that changes everything -- that changes people's hygiene habits, that changes people's lifestyles, that changes their priorities, and that changes health and life and death.

InScope: Do you have any comments or memories of your time at IU School of Medicine that you would like to share?

Dr. Brantly: Indiana University School of Medicine was a world-class institution, a top-notch school preparing doctors to take care of Hoosiers and to take care of people around the world. And I am incredibly grateful and proud of my IUSM education. I still look to a lot of the faculty and staff here at this institution as mentors and as emblems of inspiration for the work that I still have ahead of me to do.