Vanessa Kerry ’95 Seeks to Improve World Health Infrastructure

Walking along the impoverished streets of Vietnam as a 14-year-old in 1991, Vanessa Kerry ’95, co-founder and CEO of Seed Global Health, witnessed firsthand the lingering effects of the Vietnam War. The country was without electricity, people were not properly housed, and the hospital clinics had no medicine. Later in her life, Kerry’s memories of Vietnam motivated her quest to better the world’s health infrastructure.

Kerry was the keynote speaker during Wednesday’s “Non Sibi” All-School Meeting, focusing specifically on her work in Africa and her organization’s partnership with the Peace Corps, in addition to her experiences in Vietnam.

“Between my first and second year in medical school, I went to Ghana and did a study looking at the completion rates of vaccines in children. I went to study how many of these kids had actually taken all three of the vaccine series they had been assigned,” said Kerry.

While searching for a random sample for her study, Kerry was shocked to discover that the infrastructure in Ghana was so poor that there were no addresses that could help her find the women and children who were to participate in the study.

Hoping to find a solution to the shortage of doctors and nurses in resource-limited countries, Kerry worked with her colleagues to establish Seed Global Health, a non-profit organization that provides sustainable health education in these regions by way of volunteering medical professionals. Utilizing the infrastructure of the Peace Corps, Seed Global Health sends volunteer doctors and nurses to African countries for one year to provide care for local hospitals and clinics and to teach medical practices and procedures to the local people.

“I continued this road of global health, [spending] time in Rwanda and Uganda [after going to Ghana]. What I kept seeing was that people were delivering care and then leaving, that they weren’t actually transferring things. They weren’t leaving things behind. So it was great for the two weeks that you had a physician or a nurse there who was providing care, but then they left and there was nothing left behind,” said Kerry during her speech.

“What I love about Seed, and what I think is its most important thing and distinguishes it from many other program, is the idea that one doctor or one nurse will train a classroom, and each of those individuals will go on to train their own classrooms, and so forth,” she continued. “We’re not only enhancing the breadth and the quality of education these folks are receiving, but we’re also training the future generation of healthcare providers for the country.”

Realizing the impracticality of volunteering for a year without a stable income, Kerry and the team at Seed built their program around a debt repayment plan, helping to reduce the costly burdens of medical school as an incentive to sign up.

“We raise the funds in order to make it possible for loan repayment to be repaid, because the vast majority of health professionals carry some kind of debt. And we don’t just limit it to educational debt: we also wanted to include mortgages, because it turns out there’s a whole bunch of people who want to be engaged in this kind of service, but they can’t go if someone isn’t helping them pay for their car or pay for their house for the year they’re gone,” said Kerry.

During Seed’s inaugural year in 2013, the organization managed to offset nearly $750,000 worth of debt for its 31 volunteers. For 2015, Seed is on track to pay off over $1,000,000 in debt for this year’s 42 volunteers.

In the organization’s first two years of operation, Seed Global Health completed service in Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda. Kerry said that it plans to branch out to Ebola-stricken countries later this year.

After graduating from Andover in 1995, Kerry studied at Yale University and then at Harvard Medical School, subsequently completing her residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2010. Kerry is the daughter of current Secretary of State John Kerry.