MBChB ’12, MPH ’14
Ask Howard Nelson-Williams, MPH ’14, to name one of his accomplishments and he may answer with a litany of successes from which to choose. Meet the Queen of England? Check. Change how medical students further their careers in his native country of Sierra Leone? Check. Save lives millions at a time? Getting there.
What brought Nelson-Williams to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health was the realization that he and other newly trained medical doctors like him would need to leave their country in order to continue their medical and public health training. Having experienced several public health crises firsthand, he recognized there was a need to develop advanced public health skills and understand how to approach public health problems in Sierra Leone.
A native of Freetown, Sierra Leone, Nelson-Williams watched his country fall apart during the civil war. “I saw difficult things as a child, living under constant tension, wondering if our home would still be standing for another day ” he recalls. Seeing so much suffering and destruction over the course of the war led him to pursue healthcare as a career, with a goal of helping people both individually and on a larger scale.
While in medical school, he co-founded the Sierra Leone Medical Student Association (SLEMSA). SLEMSA reinforced leadership skills and charged medical students with promoting health initiatives in their local communities and across the country. Knowing that medical students would benefit from interacting with students from other parts of the world, Nelson-Williams—through his work with SLEMSA— was able to help establish SLEMSA as an official member of the biggest medical student community worldwide –the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations. This opportunity has given medical students in Sierra Leone access to leadership training, international medical conferences, peer collaborations on health projects, and medical exchanges and electives abroad. Charged and challenged by these experiences, students come back home inspired to give back to their communities.
In Nelson-Williams’ opinion, this experience is valuable on many levels. Students learn to understand problems and perspectives of countries and populations beyond their own, knowledge they can incorporate as medical professionals back home.
The biggest health crisis Sierra Leone faced in recent years was the Ebola outbreak: about eight percent of Sierra Leone’s health care workforce succumbed to the disease. In such a time of great need, members of SLEMSA were on the front lines of the fight to contain Ebola.
“Many of my professors, colleagues and friends died in the line of duty, dwindling a severely unstaffed health care workforce even further,” says Nelson-Williams. “In that period, I devoted my attention to helping the Ebola control effort, mainly through advocacy and research. Helping to rebuild our health care system in Sierra Leone and develop healthcare across Africa is of paramount importance to me.”
At the Bloomberg School, his membership in the African Public Health Network, (APHN)—including a stint as president—reinforced his commitment to Sierra Leone and to public health in general. The APHN strives to bring together students and faculty in developing solutions to address public health problems in Africa. He used the opportunity to highlight major health disparities in Africa and to facilitate widespread discussions and research collaborations among students and faculty across the institution.
At the core of his work and advocacy is his desire to find a sustainable solution for the severe shortage of health care workers in Sierra Leone as well as other countries across the continent. Chief among his current goals is developing partnerships between the Sierra Leone government and medical institutions in the United States and elsewhere to help establish nationally accredited postgraduate training programs for Sierra Leone medical students. He believes that providing greater training for health care workers locally will open more career pathways, promote retention of health care personnel, improve the quality of service delivery within communities and ultimately improve health care standards nationwide. On a more individual scale, he is also dedicated to implementing safe surgery and anesthesia practices in low and middle-income countries—a goal that led him to accept a research position at the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in August 2016.
When an opportunity came up to apply for the 2016 Queen’s Young Leader Award, he realized that he was eligible. The award seeks to recognize and celebrate exceptional people aged 18 to 29 who are taking the lead in their communities and transforming lives. Winners are offered a special package including enrollment in a leadership course at Cambridge University, media training, mentoring, and networking opportunities—ideal tools to cultivate a public health culture shift in Sierra Leone. And of course, a chance to meet the Queen of England. Nelson-Williams was one of sixty award recipients this year, selected from more than 2,000 applicants across the commonwealth.
Looking back at his experiences thus far (seeing as he is only 28!), Nelson-Williams has learned that he doesn’t want to get too far from advocacy, training, and development. He hopes that more health care and allied professionals from Sierra Leone and other underrepresented countries in Africa will have the opportunity to pursue advanced public health training at Johns Hopkins, which will be of benefit to health systems in their respective countries and the continent as a whole.
In the meantime, he’ll keep on working to find ways to strengthen health care systems in low resource settings, particularly in Sierra Leone, while developing his own clinical and public health career.