Friends for Life: The Class of ‘98
It was during Orientation, back in July of 1997, when Ricky Fine told us, as we sat in what was, at that time, the main lecture hall, what would prove to be so true: “Look to your left, look to your right. These will be your friends for life.” We are all doing different things now, living on different continents and leading different lives than we were then, but her words have proven true.
This year, thirteen years after our graduation, seven of us came together for a mini-reunion in Baltimore, after months of planning (the original hope was for a tenth year reunion, but it took three more years to pull it off!) and much effort on the part of all involved. Attending were: Jacky Jennings, now jointly appointed at the Bloomberg School and the Johns Hopkins Medical School; Christoph Benn, now at the Global Fund in Switzerland; Sheila Sears, who is a Director of Public and Primary Health Care at the Regional Office of Public Health in Nova Scotia, Canada; Axel Wiest, who is in Germany with Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH , a private bio-tech company; Ahmad von Schlegell, who is in southern California practicing geriatrics and planning to pursue an additional degree in Health Economics; Mechtild Venneman, who is Professor of Epidemiology at University of Muenster in Germany; Gayatri Jayaraman, who is in Chennai, India for a year’s Sabbatical from her national public health position in Ottawa, Canada; and Edith Wolff, who was at the Hopkins Center for American Indian Health after graduation, and now lives in Seattle, Washington.
Also attending were three spouses who were such an integral part of our year as students: Elisabeth Benn (Christoph), Douglass Bothner (Jacky) and Joerg Esleben (Gayatri) . Three others in the group, Kate Taylor, Stephane Legros and Mani Sheik, were unable to attend and sorely missed.
Following months of organizing, we were able to enjoy a long weekend of activities, starting with the dinner at the Wolff’s home with our mentors Bob Lawrence and former dean, Al Sommer. It was fitting that our first gathering was there because our first and last real social gatherings of our MPH year were there: crabs, beer, a dip in the pool and our first evening of total relaxation at the end of first term; and the graduation party in May, among others. The following day, there was a long hike along the Gunpowder for the stout of heart, followed by a wonderful barbecue at the home of Jacky Jennings and Doug Bothner and their two beautiful children. On Sunday, we had brunch at Gertrude’s at the Baltimore Museum of Art and enjoyed the sculpture garden.
On Monday, we had a day of meetings at the School, which has improved in so many ways since we were students there. After a morning session with Drs. Lawrence and Marie Diener-West, we learned about changes to the curriculum including new areas of focus as well as changes to the buildings and infrastructure. Most of us had never been back to Baltimore and were amazed by the many changes. This morning meeting was followed by a tour of the school. All of us were greatly impressed with the many changes and improvements that have taken place under the leadership of Deans Sommer and Klag. During the lunch hour, we met with the JB Grant Society, a group to which we all belonged in our Hopkins days, and enjoyed an informative and fascinating talk by Dr. Benn about the Global Fund and the strides it is making in combating AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis. That evening, there was a social hour for us and our hosts from the school at the Brewer’s Art, where we had so many fun times years ago. On Tuesday, most of us left for our homes, filled with a renewed commitment to the School, each other and public health. Dr. Jayaraman was delighted to stay on for an extra day to attend a class taught by Drs. Jennings and Taha Taha on outbreak investigations and to share experiences from the field on that topic. It was a wonderful opportunity to see one from our group teaching a class at our alma mater, and demonstrating her expertise in such an important area.
New Challenges in Public Health
While we were meeting in various favorite places in Baltimore, our discussions turned increasingly to the current state of public health, what today’s challenges are and where we hoped the future might lie. Also, we discussed the role of the Bloomberg School and what we, as alumnae, might be able to carry forward from this meeting. Several themes emerged as we discussed our own careers and where we saw the need for future concentration of public health efforts. (We even had a fascinating philosophical discussion about friendship as performance or illusion, a conceptual conflict to which we were introduced by Dr. Esleben, from the spouse group!). Our hope was that, by identifying certain themes that have the most impact on public health and public health education, we might make some impact in furthering the efforts of the school and its alumnae around the world. In doing so, we were hopeful that we might contribute to that overall effort by Hopkins alumnae over the decades to improve public health worldwide.
We had boisterous discussions on the role of public health practitioners in the effort to address the societal ills of infectious diseases, chronic conditions and health disparities. Those of us who are engaged in work addressing the determinants of health argued that a significant role for public health practitioners should be to expose and address disparity in society. Others proposed that certain populations would take up more public health resources in the future. In Western countries, argued one, senior citizens were destined to (or have already) become one such group. There were varying degrees of agreement on a great many topics. Of course, most of the questions and issues we discussed are the stuff of public health and, so, remain topics for discussion and constant effort in the field.
The striving toward better public health is, of course, an effort that is never-ending. But when we came together as a group in Baltimore this May, from so many different parts of the world and so many areas of expertise, there was a magical mixture of fun, great food, warm memories, and inspiration. We felt as close as we had when we left Baltimore that May of 1998.