Sharity Sommer, Program Associate

JillLast month the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced its 2009 Fellows. Dr. Jill Seaman, an infectious disease physician who spends part of her year in Bethel, was among 24 Fellowship recipients surprised by the out-of-the-blue phone call about their award, which comes with a $500,000 ‘no-strings-attached’ stipend.

The MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, known broadly as the “Genius” awards, are dispersed over five years and have no stipulations. Fellows are not obligated to report on how the money is used. According to the MacArthur Foundation website, “The unusual level of independence afforded to Fellows underscores the spirit of freedom intrinsic to creative endeavors. The work of MacArthur Fellows knows neither boundaries nor the constraints of age, place, and endeavor.”

In reviewing Seaman’s work and accomplishments, it’s no surprise she was dubbed a “genius.” During the past two decades, Seaman has humbly gone about her work, without looking for monetary gain. She simply identified a need unfilled and sought to change it.

Since 1989, Seaman has divided her time between Bethel, where she works with the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC), and southern Sudan. She has served thousands who might otherwise not have access to medical care.

Seaman first visited Sudan while treating Ethiopian refugees in 1985. Shortly after her arrival on the continent, she decided she needed more medical training and enrolled in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. After graduating in 1989, she returned to Sudan, which was in the midst of civil war, with Doctors Without Borders (DWB) to investigate an epidemic that was killing thousands. What they found was visceral leishmaniasis or kala-azar. In response, Seaman helped set up makeshift clinics that offered the only treatment option for thousands of people in an area with no health care infrastructure, electricity, or running water.

When DWB left Sudan in the late 1990s, Seaman established her own medical organization based in the village of Old Fangak. The people of the area are Nuer tribes people, whom Seaman over the years has trained and employed. Seaman has become an expert on the kala-azar and has earned numerous awards for her groundbreaking work responding to the deadly disease and for her volunteer humanitarian efforts. In 1997, she was featured in Time Magazine, as one of ten “Heroes in Medicine.” In this video interview, she talks about her work in the village.

Today, Seaman works out of a building in Old Fangak that was built during the British colonial period. She sleeps outside in a tent. In 2010 the building will be repossessed by the Sudanese government. In response to this and the astronomical needs of the people of southern Sudan, Seaman’s friends began fundraising efforts to aid her crucial work there. Over the course of the past 18 months, the group created the Alaska Sudan Medical Project (ASMP), and a donor-advised fund held at the Alaska Community Foundation that accepts online donations.

ASMP is a 12-member team of Alaskans who describe themselves on their website as being “from all walks of life, but with one thing in common. A strong desire to use Alaska’s can do attitude to help a group of people who are desperate for any help.” ASMP’s goals are too build a new health center and install four new water wells and a latrine in the village. They also hope to train locals to use the drilling equipment and build new wells, creating a lasting impact in the region. Donations to ASMP can be made on the ACF website.

The successes of ASMP are the result of a dedicated group. In a letter to Rasmuson Foundation, ASMP member Dr. Jack Hickel wrote: “The challenges of working in a very remote and logistically challenging area of Southern Sudan, along with difficulties in dealing with foreign relations in a third world country proved a lesson in persistence and patience for the Alaska team.”

Despite Dr. Seaman’s newfound financial stability, she shows no signs of slowing down. Grant Fairbanks, an ASMP team-member guesses that her MacArthur award will likely go to the project. Fairbanks told the Anchorage Daily News that she, “pretty much uses her whole YKHC salary to fund her (African) projects.”

Do you know of others that have identified a community need and tackled it? Share it here.

Photo of Dr. Seaman courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation.

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