Michael Van Rooyen caring for a woman in Mogadishu, Somalia

Michael Van Rooyen’s training in emergency medicine and public health has literally taken him around the world, from Russia to Rwanda, Sudan to Bosnia.

The common link in his travels is relief work. Van Rooyen spent months in Rwanda in the aftermath of that country’s horrific genocide, for instance, practicing what he calls "emergency public health" for millions of refugees with monumental health problems. Now working closely with the Rwandan Ministry of Health,Van Rooyen is helping to reestablish the country’s medical education program.

Van Rooyen says he pursued his MPH degree at the School of Public Health so that he could be in a position to make greater and more lasting contributions to benefit the health of populations around the world who need help the most. "You see a lot of different things in situations like Rwanda, besides the emotional aspects and the hopelessness of it all," Van Rooyen says. "One of the reasons I went back to school for my MPH was, as an emergency physician, I realized that the impact I had was very limited and temporary while the needs are so overwhelming, which is the single best word to describe Rwanda.

"When you see chaos of that magnitude, you realize you need to approach it from the macro level. That’s what public health is all about, and that’s why I decided to combine emergency medicine and public health. Now my interests are gravitating toward political issues because addressing those is the next step up in terms of having a larger impact."

Van Rooyen is now helping Rwanda rebuild its medical education program with funding from a philanthropic group called Samaritan’s Purse, a private organization that supports emergency and relief work worldwide.

As a boy growing up in a small town in Michigan, Van Rooyen dreamed of being a physician, but never dreamed that he’d be where he is now. "It’s funny. When you start out as a kid, especially in a small town, your aspirations are so much smaller than your potential because you don’t know what’s out there," he says. "The advantage of going to Chicago and now Baltimore is that it explodes the world in front of you, and you can see the kinds of things people are doing out there in which you could become involved. All the travel has helped expand what I believe I can accomplish."

After earning his medical degree from Wayne State University, Van Rooyen spent his residency in emergency medicine at UIC, then joined the staff there. He also served on the faculty of the College of Medicine’s Department of Emergency Medicine. While at UIC, Van Rooyen decided to pursue an MPH at the School of Public Health, where he chose to specialize within the Health Policy and Administration Division with its emphasis on health systems management and public health policymaking. Now located in Baltimore, Van Rooyen is an assistant professor in the School of Hygiene and Public Health and in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

"My interest in emergency medicine expanded to include international disaster relief. This fits well with the clinical side of disaster response, especially in conflicted regions," Van Rooyen says. "I began to explore disaster relief by doing a research study after medical school in Geneva, Switzerland, and then went to India and El Salvador and did some postdisaster work. I took a year off and worked a lot in Africa and then Russia, where I did some research, education, and clinical work. From there, I got into disaster relief and refugee emergencies."

In Sudan, one of the poorest countries in Africa which is further ravaged by a fourteen year-old civil war, Van Rooyen was instrumental in setting up a new hospital in the south, where the population remains transient because of constant military troop movements in and out of the region. Opened nine months ago, the hospital is now the major surgical facility for all of southern Sudan. The region had two smaller hospitals run by Norwegians, but both were bombed in civil war fighting and had to be closed. In addition to building hospitals, Van Rooyen is involved in building a community health infrastructure and primary health and immunization programs for Sudan.

In Rwanda, he is also lending his expertise to help build an infrastructure for emergency medicine in Kigali, the country’s capital city. Van Rooyen notes that emergency medical services are a common need in many countries around the world now emerging from third world status and seeing large urban populations spring up as a result.

Van Rooyen observes, "We’re still a long way from acknowledging the importance of public health, but public health is also partly to blame because it hasn’t been very aggressive in promoting itself. I think making the public aware of public health is extremely important. Meanwhile, places like the Centers for Disease Control are redefining public health to include things like injury prevention and disaster relief. There are many things public health is now that it wasn’t before."

He adds that pursuing an MPH to augment his medical degree was akin to getting an MBA for someone who wants to improve his opportunities in business. The degree is "an additional prerequisite for doing other work. It gives you entry into the realms of community and public health and teaches you the vocabulary you need to work in the field, which is why many physicians have gotten the MPH. It gives them a bigger picture of what public health is all about, and it links their specialty with that bigger picture. We’re moving away from the concentration on subspecialties we once had and are now putting medical practice into the greater context of what really works, what really improves the health of a population."

Contributed by Rick Asa

H E A L T H   P R O    H O M E |  S P H   H O M E