Kenneth V. Iserson, M.D., is a doctor, so he’s expected to help people — but he’s also a humanitarian pioneer. “I’m one of the grandfathers of emergency medicine,” Iserson, home from a two-month stint teaching doctors in Argentina, told the AJP. “I completed the first residency in emergency medicine in the world at the University of Cincinnati [College of Medicine] in 1976. I wanted to pay it forward,” he says of his training trips since then for doctors on all seven continents.
Growing up in a Jewish family in Washington, D.C., Iserson knew it was important to help others. His family’s influence was probably negative about travel, he jokes. “My father was in World War II and spent most of his time in Europe in tents. My grandmother made me promise I would never go to Russia.”
First he became a doctor, and then travel he did.
After graduating from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1975, Iserson started his residency in surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., but after a year switched to emergency medicine. He came to Tucson in 1981. Iserson was the first residency director of emergency medicine on the faculty at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and is now professor emeritus in the department of emergency medicine.
Iserson’s medical forays — both teaching and clinical — around the world began in Mexico in 1990. “I arranged to work part-time at a general hospital for the poor in Guanajuato, Mexico. First I had to learn Spanish. I used Berlitz tapes in the car” and other sources, he says.
“I was so naíve at that point. There weren’t enough physicians to care for patients, or sometimes they didn’t show up and it was medical students who had to take care of patients. They didn’t have a clue. One time they wanted to discharge a woman with a protruding stomach who wasn’t pregnant, but probably had a tumor. The medical students virtually had no clinical experience. That hospital has significantly upgraded since then.”
“The Global Healthcare Volunteer’s Handbook: What You Need to Know Before You Go” (2014, Galen Press, Ltd.), one of Iserson’s 12 published books, is a practical guide. Nearly 40 years after he started teaching and doing clinical work overseas, he’s been to such diverse countries as Bhutan, Israel, South Africa, Hungary, Zambia, Greenland and South Sudan, which, he says, “was the most dangerous. I got malaria and had guns pointed at me. I’ve worked in every country in Central America. I’ve been on the faculty at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation in Guyana, which is sponsored by Vanderbilt University.” He’s also spent six months in Antarctica.
Iserson, now 65, says, “I retired at age 60.” Supposedly — but he’s still going strong. His wife, Mary Lou Iserson, a tax CPA, travels with him occasionally, such as to Hungary. “She has veto power” on where he goes. “People keep telling me, ‘Do not go to West Africa’” because of the Ebola epidemic, notes Iserson.
“It’s best not to just go to a country and help people. It’s also about teaching emergency medicine around the world, expanding the knowledge of doctors, helping them learn how to research, write and get published.” Iserson has written approximately 400 journal articles, textbook chapters, audiovisual materials and other publications.
He gives talks nationally and internationally, including a recent keynote in Spanish for the 40th Annual Course on Medical and Surgical Emergencies in Argentina. He’s on call as a supervisory medical officer with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Disaster Medical Assistance Team for the United States and U.S. territories. Iserson was in St. Bernard Parish, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“I don’t know from month to month or week to week where I’m going. I have no idea what I’ll be doing next. I have to be flexible,” says Iserson, whose positions are often as a volunteer. “This work gives me the gift of being open to a vast population of people to interact with. I now have good friends who don’t speak more than a few words of English.”
He has also had opportunities to meet Jews in other parts of the world. A member of the Congregation Or Chadash Brotherhood, Iserson spent time with a fellow congregant’s family members in Cordoba, Argentina. He attended an Ashkenazi synagogue, which is unusual in the Spanish-speaking Jewish world, and enjoyed a Shabbat dinner with them.
“How little we know about the rest of the world, the marked differences in cultures,” affirms Iserson. “We consider U.S. docs well-educated people, yet they don’t have a good world understanding. I’m frequently asked, ‘How is it working in the jungle?’ meaning in sub-Saharan Africa. There’s more jungle in Guyana.”
Iserson directs the UA College of Medicine’s REEME Project, assisting international medicine professionals in understanding other cultures. “They’re not going to be the same people when they return home,” he says, adding, “I counsel residents about this. They may ask U.S. patients what they’re doing in the emergency room and feel like saying, ‘You’re not sick enough. In other countries people are dying’” by the time they get to the emergency room.
“American doctors ask how they can have my life,” says Iverson. “You have to do the groundwork. My future is whatever I want it to be.”