I was born in Los Angeles in the 1950s—a 3rd generation Californian of Armenian heritage. My father survived Guadalcanal and malaria and hepatitis and returned home to marry my mom and start a family. My brother was the math/physics whiz–I was the quirky, imaginative kid who was always reading. My parents, who both graduated from the University of California, loved music and gardens (she) and history and politics (he). The only science I recall my parents studying was a graduate course in food technology my mother once took; because her college grades were better than my dad’s, she attended Oregon State to learn how to make maraschino cherries so my father could start the specialty food company which paid for my education.
In the 1960s my father decided our family should start traveling overseas—on a shoestring. On our first trip, my brother and I happily missed months of school while touring Europe in a small diesel car. We sometimes visited villages where no one had ever seen an American before meeting us. On occasion—despite the language barrier–we attended school with innskeepers’ kids. However, we did enjoy one glamorous month in a London flat previously occupied by a British starlet. I loved England—especially Foyles bookstore and creaky country hotels where you could whack golf balls on the back lawn.
When we were kids, my father also drove across the U.S. on business once or twice a year, and sometimes we joined him. I still recall sharecroppers’ shacks and antebellum towns, Midwest farm culture, and the futuristic 1963 New York World’s Fair. These experiences fueled my interest in people and history, my country and the world.
Eventually my parents moved to Santa Barbara, where I attended a small school and excelled in ancient history, Latin, and literature. I discovered science when I took 11th grade Biology and also worked as a hospital volunteer. I was captivated. At that point I impulsively decided to become a doctor. I really had no idea what I was getting into. Nor did my parents, although they liked the fact I had set a serious goal.
As an undergraduate at Stanford, I majored in History and pre-med. Like everyone else on campus, I lived through riots, tear gas and the periodic closure of buildings and classes. Sadly, three people in my freshman dorm were dead within a year—casualties of youthful experiments of the era. This opened my eyes to the fragility of life.
Following college, I worked at a rural hospital in Haiti with few amenities—in other words, no telephone, mail delivered by donkey, and, at best, two to three hours of electricity a day. I saw children and adults with malnutrition, malaria, TB, injuries, voodoo curses, you name it; on most days, one or two died in the waiting room. At the end of the summer, the entire town celebrated the completion of a small hydroelectric dam. For the first time in their lives, my new friends could burn 15 watt light bulbs in their tiny homes.
This experience also affected me. I wasn’t sure exactly how I would combine medicine and international health, but I knew would not have a conventional career.
As a medical student in chilly Chicago, I could only dream about the tropics, but during my internal medicine residency I did wangle a rotation at the US Public Health Service Hospital for leprosy in Carville, Louisiana. My other coup during residency was my year off—which I divided between the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. At LSHTM, I loved listening to old-time district health officers describe how they had once battled cholera, smallpox, sleeping sickness and plague—dissecting mosquito salivary glands–learning how to build a latrine in the jungle–and examining patients in the historic, albeit crumbling, Hospital for Tropical Diseases. At Tripler, I took care of soldiers and native people from the Pacific Trust Territories.
My next destination was Tufts-New England Medical Center, where I spent 4 more years training in infectious disease and geographic medicine. While rotating through different Boston hospitals, I continued to build clinical expertise; in the lab, I focused on a parasitic infection called leishmaniasis. I also worked in southern Taiwan—the first of many trips as a visiting professor to medical schools in Asia and elsewhere. In Taiwan I lectured island-wide, advised a University President on infection control and living wills, conducted surveys of schoolchildren for intestinal helminths and eosinophilic meningitis, and ate every exotic food put before me– including local snails that probably carried the parasite of eosinophilic meningitis.
Finally, in the 1980s I took a “real job.” I became an assistant professor at UCLA School of Medicine and Chief of Infectious Diseases at the smallest of the four Los Angeles county hospitals. In addition to caring for sick patients, I decided which antibiotics our hospital would use, ran its infection control program, and dealt first hand with the growing plague of HIV without a blood test or anti-viral treatment. I served on LA County boards for TB and STDs. Thanks to our international patient population, I also saw textbook cases of nearly every exotic diagnosis ever found on an infectious diseases board exam.
Three years later, I reached a crossroads. I felt compelled to do something new—but what? To the dismay of colleagues and mentors, I decided to leave my county post without a specific plan. Over the next year I worked overseas in the Philippines and Pakistan and was courted by agencies in Washington DC. Then, serendipitously, I answered an ad in the New England Journal of Medicine for a job as a medical editor at Lifetime Medical Television (at that time, the parent Lifetime network devoted a full day each week to programs about health and medicine). Long story short: working for Lifetime changed my life. I met my future husband (a noted producer-director with a 20-year string of Emmys and other awards) and other veteran journalists and TV craftspeople. After helping with several one-hour specials, I became a senior medical editor—and soon after, reporter and co-anchor–for “Physician’s Journal,” Lifetime’s weekly, national medical news and interview show. I learned to write copy, read a TeleprompTer, and cover breaking medical and political stories in the field and by satellite interview. I became a card-carrying member of the Writers Guild of America. I traveled overseas with my future husband to document the public health impact of war, disaster and political change in former Soviet Armenia. I covered tropical medicine stories as often as I could. In 1993 I hosted a show on malaria that featured satellite interviews with two colleagues in Washington, DC and Atlanta. In 1997, my interview with a prominent doctor and medical school dean dying of kidney cancer won a major international award.
But TV was just one piece of my professional life. Within a year of joining Lifetime, I was recruited back to UCLA’s Westwood campus as an infectious diseases specialist and Director of Travel and Tropical Medicine. In addition to taking care of patients and teaching trainees, some of my greatest pleasures at UCLA have been: chairing UCLA’s campus-wide Pacific Rim Research Program, co-founding UCLA’s Program in Global Health, and—for the last 10-plus years– teaching global health to undergraduates majoring in International Development. I currently serve as UCLA’s campus representative to UC’s new, system-wide Global Health Institute. In 2008, I also served as the President of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, the world’s largest professional society devoted to tropical medicine.
Once back at UCLA, I continued to work overseas as a journalist and medical educator—especially in Asia. In 1999, my husband and I were asked by the pharma giant Glaxo-Wellcome to produce a documentary on hepatitis B; the program was shot in 5 Asian countries plus the U.S. and has now been viewed in multiple languages by 300 hundred million people. However, I largely switched from broadcast to print journalism in the late 1990s when I launched a monthly column called the “The Doctor Files” in the Los Angeles Times and started to write for Discover magazine and Scientific American. My Discover archive includes, among others, real-life stories about Chagas Disease, tetanus, cholera, schistosomiasis, leishmaniasis, African sleeping sickness, measles, malaria, rabies, strongyloides, and filariasis—all based on patients I have personally seen and cared for. In 2005, I also wrote a landmark article on malaria for Scientific American.
Now, in addition to pieces in the Los Angeles Times, I publish columns and op-eds in the New York Times, Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. My most recent project, since 2009, is my locally-syndicated “Infection Files” column which appears weekly in roughly 10 southern California newspapers. I also write occasional narrative essays for the New England Journal of Medicine, Health Affairs, JAMA and other professional journals.
My writing skills also brought me back to Washington DC as a consultant for the National Academies of Science/Institute of Medicine. In 2004 and 2005 I co-authored influential reports dealing with global subsidies for malaria drugs and the need for a US Global Health Service to support HIV programs and health workforce development in Africa. Two years before the publication of the report recommending a global malaria subsidy (led and championed by Nobel laureate economist Kenneth Arrow), my husband and I worked in Tanzania filming malaria experts and malaria stakeholders. A few years later, my husband created a film for the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene which spans the history of hemorrhagic fever viruses (from Machupo to Ebola to hantavirus and beyond) through the eyes of master tropical scientist and storyteller Dr. Karl M Johnson.
Through the last 25 years of my varied career, my husband Patrick Dunavan has been my companion, guide, and encourager. After starting as an actor and theatrical director—then spending years in the TV trenches producing and directing everything from network news and prime time segments to kids shows, cooking shows and 50 full-length medical programs, he has become picky! In 1998, he and I created HealthQuest Media, Inc for special medical and educational journalism projects. I am very proud of my husband’s talents and achievements–and his modest, kind spirit. Although he has won numerous awards, he would never tell you unless pushed!
Husband and family–patients and students–colleagues, neighbors and friends around the world—and human stories– are the warp and woof of my life. The final creatures that complete my life are two small spaniels. They were suitably honored in 2008 when I won a Maxwell Medal from the Dog Writers Association of America (a venerable group that has met at the Westminster Dog Show since 1935) for an essay published in the Baltimore Sun entitled “Best Friends Forever.” Despite its sunny title, the piece is about tragedy and joy. Without both, life would not be real.