As adolescents, many of us dreamed of the kind of doctor that we would be someday: an adventurer who travels to distant lands to fight tropical diseases, a humanist whose patients love him for his compassion and wisdom, a gladiator who combats deadly pathogens in remote villages of destitute countries, a wizard who cures diseased children through wit and with only the barest of resources. Somehow, most of us ended up settling for jobs and careers that are less exotic, less generous, and, yes, less exciting than the ones we dreamed of in our youths.
But not Douglas Postels. Dr. Postels treats children in underserved regions around the world. he provides compassionate and life-saving care in places without running water and electricity. He conducts clinical research in field hospitals. He employs special translation systems to ensure communication with his patients. he teaches students and residents at home and across the globe. For these and other reasons, Dr. Douglas Postels is the 2013 recipient of the Arnold P. Gold Foundation humanism in Medicine Award from the Child Neurology Society.
The first of his family to enter medicine, the young Douglas Postels graduated from Loyola University College of Medicine in 1988. While still a medical student, Douglas had his first taste of international medicine when he worked on the island of St. Lucia. Fascinated by the developing nervous system and the diseases that afflict it, he was drawn to child neurology and received his residency training from the US Air Force at San Antonio and at Washington University.
For more than a decade after completing his formal training, Dr. Postels worked in a private group practice in New Orleans, followed by Albuquerque. In those locales, Dr. Postels had the opportunity to treat large numbers of ethnic and racial minorities, including American Indians, African American, Cajuns, and hispanics. In those experiences, his humanism in medicine grew, as he learned that he could optimally treat people only when he understood their concepts of health and disease. During this period, he also had several stints in international medicine, as he led international teams of medical students and physicians to set up mobile clinics in Ladakh and Kashmir.
His experience in international medicine began in earnest in 2007, when he was awarded a travel grant from the World Federation of Neurology to teach for one month at the University of Malawi. The following year, he received the Child Neurology Society’s International Visiting Professor Award, and he used this award to teach, once again, in Malawi. These experiences transformed him. he saw how desperate some regions of the world are for medical help and how anxious medical providers in the developing world are to learn modern medical approaches.
After 15 years of private practice, Dr. Postels resigned his long-standing position and devoted himself to healthcare in the developing world. As a Field Volunteer for Médecins Sans Frontières, he first travelled to Lubutu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, he treated everything, from common pediatric problems to desperately ill patients, and taught African physicians, not just pediatric neurology, but all aspects of pediatric and adult medicine.
After a long stint in the eastern Congo, Dr. Postels transferred to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he arrived nine days after a notorious and devastating earthquake. In Haiti, he lived in a mountainous region above Port-au-Prince, with no running water or electricity, and he spent his days assisting amputations of earthquake victims.
Three years ago, while working in rural Congo, Dr. Postels was recruited to the faculty of Michigan State university. A recent arrival to academics, he divides his time between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana, Uganda, and Malawi), where he provides patient care, teaches, and conducts clinical research.
Dr. Postel’s research focuses on cerebral malaria, a scourge that afflicts hundreds of thousands of African children, with high rates of mortality and morbidity. Of those children diagnosed with “cerebral malaria,” as many as one-third are indeed infected with malaria, but have some other cause of their encephalopathy. Dr. Postel’s research aims to identify those other causes.
Dr. Postel has learned that effective communication is key to the delivery of healthcare. Patients and doctors must understand each other. Whenever he has been confronted by a language barrier, he has set out to tear that barrier down by learning his patients’ language. Thus, when working in New Mexico, he taught himself Spanish; and when working in the Congo, he learned medical Swahili. Currently, working in Malawi, he is not yet conversant in the native language of Chichewa. Therefore, he has devised a system in which families are provided translated diagnosis and treatment information and must repeat the information back to him through a different translator, before they leave the hospital or clinic. This back-translation system takes much of Dr. Postel’s time, but ensures that his patients are properly treated.
Dr. Postels devotes himself to children’s health in corners of the globe where work and life are not easy. he is, without doubt, a deserving recipient of this year’s Gold Foundation humanism Award, and he inspires us all. Typical of his humanism, Dr. Postels will donate the $1000 cash award to the charity whose name exemplifies his work: Médecins Sans Frontières.