Dr. Thea James’ commitment to global and public health led to her recent receipt of the Schwartz Center’s Compassionate Caregiver Award. Dr. James works at the Boston Medical Center. She is an associate professor of emergency medicine, the co-founder of the Violence Intervention Advocacy Program and the co-founder of Unified for Global Healing. For twelve years, Dr. James has traveled globally to help medically support those in need. We spoke with her about her advocacy program and her role as a leading woman in the healthcare industry.
Why did you start the Violence Intervention Advocacy Program?
There was a lot of violence in Boston in the 80s. Interventions happened and it subsided but there was a resurgence in the early 2000s. The Boston Medical Center was chosen as the site to help create intervention programs. Now we have a national network of hospital bases that participate in similar programs. It started with eight and has grown to twenty-seven hospitals. We serve any person who shows up and is the victim of violence. We provide them with educational resources, housing, life skills training, mental health services and job readiness training. But we also provide them with a mentor, which is often the most important factor. Most people need one caring adult to help them move forward.
Tell me about your journey to founding Unified for Global Healing.
I co-founded Unified for Global Healing with one of my residents. We would visit Haiti once a year. Once she graduated we started taking teams to Haiti. The program was founded in 2007 and it’s been an inspiring journey ever since. We realize we got so much more back in Haiti, Africa and India then we gave. We use a partnership model that is based on sustainable projects. People identify what they need and we help provide that for them. We can teach skills like performing ultrasounds or do workshops in areas like midwifery. It’s always something that people can take and use going forward. The difference with Unified for Global Healing is that we moved out of a strictly medical model to incorporate other areas, like art therapy and social work. In India, we used art therapy to help parents identify household items that were poisonous. They were having an issue with children poisoning themselves by consuming these items. Incorporating other areas helps to build sustainable models based on what people need.
How have your job and the healthcare industry evolved over the past few years?
My work involves breaking negative cycles that keep people stuck in the same places. My job has enabled me to help these people in public health through opportunities that impact people’s lives for the better. It has evolved in a way that allows me to provide and help people. And we do that by gaining new partnerships in the community. Healthcare is changing through the payment system. People are realizing we shouldn’t waste resources so we’re looking to models that are based on patient satisfaction and performance.
What has your experience been as a woman in the healthcare industry?
I’ve thought about this recently. I don’t think that I have experienced outward gender biased or missed any opportunities. There are likely unconscious biases happening but that’s just human nature.
What is most inspiring about the work you do?
The opportunity to do it. I get to watch people’s lives transform and part of that is teaching people that they deserve happiness. When people learn to thrive and not just survive, it makes all the difference in the world. Everybody interprets what they see or hear through their life experiences. I’ve built partnerships with people around the world and they have changed my life. I’ve become a better person and physician because of my experiences.
You recently received the Schwartz Center Compassionate Caregiver Award. How do you feel about that?
I was really stunned because there are so many of us out here doing this work. The fact that one person can be selected among all these people was mind-boggling. I accepted it as an honor shared with my fellow coworkers and all those who work in healthcare. I am thankful to so many people – we practice medicine to mitigate suffering. I learned it from those who taught me and my patients and their families.
Soniya Shah is an on-staff contributing writer at MedTech Boston. She's a senior at Carnegie Mellon University pursuing a BS in technical writing. She has experience as a ghost writer and medical writer, and in developing software documentation.
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