Physician-writer-humanitarian Pearson becomes Ford Foundation Global Fellow

By Holly Wayment

In this time of unrest and turmoil following the death of George Floyd, here’s a message of hope: A physician at UT Health San Antonio is part of a prestigious group of emerging world leaders gathering together — for the first time — to create change.

Rachel Pearson, MD, PhD
Rachel Pearson, MD, PhD

The Ford Foundation, which on June 1 announced a $50 million investment over 10 years to connect and support the next generation of social justice leaders, selected Rachel Pearson, MD, PhD, to be one of the first 24 Ford Global Fellows.

Dr. Pearson is an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics in the Long School of Medicine and is a scholar in residence in the university’s Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics. Her degrees include a doctorate in medical humanities from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

She is both an exemplary pediatrician and a well-published author with a keen interest in vulnerable populations such as migrant children and families.

“I’m humbled and honored by this fellowship award. There’s a lot of trauma and pain right now, and we all have to acknowledge that,” Dr. Pearson said. “But I believe this disruption can lead to a better world. Now, our work is to reimagine and remake the world to be more equitable and just.”

Vision of a more equitable world

The group of leaders gathered via Zoom in early June for their summit, with future sessions planned in Brazil and Africa. A major focus: chaos and pain.

“One of the dangers of so much trauma is that power will become more consolidated and violence will become more normalized. We need to focus on our fundamental values,” said Dr. Pearson, who is expecting her first baby in July and wrote about it in The New Yorker. “Difference matters, and as a pediatrician I see how racism and economic inequality affect the health of even the smallest Texans. But at the end of the day, all Texans would benefit from living in a more equitable world. Our shared humanity matters more than our differences.”

Dr. Pearson grew up in a working-class family in Port Aransas, an experience she reflects on from time to time in Texas Monthly. She became a clinician and writer hoping to make a difference and bring to light fundamental inequalities she witnessed and continues to see firsthand.

“As a medical student, I saw people – folks just like my family members – who died of curable diseases because they didn’t have access to quality health care. I wanted to become a good doctor and a good writer to comment about these inequalities,” she said.

Dr. Pearson is an award-winning author. Her book, “Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming of Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine,” was named an editor’s choice by the New York Times Book Review.

‘Poised to have substantive future impact’

UT Health San Antonio leaders are thrilled by her Ford Foundation laurel.

“This is a very competitive fellowship. Congratulations to Rachel, the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics, and to our Department of Pediatrics and San Antonio,” said transplant surgeon Francisco G. Cigarroa, MD, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Ford Foundation and former UT Health San Antonio president and UT System chancellor. “Fellows have been selected based on already impactful accomplishments in addressing the root causes of inequality and tackling problems at the systemic level. They are expansive in their approach and potential. They are poised to have substantive future impact in mitigating inequality and social injustice.”

“Rachel speaks about injustice in a way that changes hearts,” said Ruth Berggren, MD, director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics. “This is why we recruited her. She is a brilliant thinker who wrote presciently, before the COVID-19 shutdown, that ‘any time we are isolated from neighbors, fellow humans or potential friends, we suffer. We suffer under the false belief that we cannot recognize, communicate with and bend toward each other.’ With the Ford Fellowship, Rachel is now in a position to leverage new professional networks in a manner that will augment the reach of her message to the field of medicine and society at large.”

Moral compass

Steven Seidner, MD, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at UT Health San Antonio, said, “I’m so proud of Rachel. In addition to being an outstanding physician, educator and role model, she has truly brought a whole new dimension in our department in the area of moral decision-making.”

Dr. Berggren agreed, observing that “Rachel quickly establishes loyalty in her learners, who become devoted followers. Her leadership has already drawn 3,000 subscribers to our new website, www.panpals.org, created to preserve humanitarian values, compassion and justice through a time of crisis.” (Pan in panpals stands for “pandemic.”)

As her reach expands nationally and internationally, Dr. Pearson also plans to focus on creating change close to home, in South Texas.

“I’m really excited,” she said. “I hope this is an opportunity for Texas to move forward and create equality. There’s a lot of disruption and suffering and violence. Even so, it’s a good time to focus on our dreams to create a better world.”

Dr. Pearson also has written for the Washington Post (see her excellent essay on the plight of an undocumented mother whose son needed tertiary medical care) and the Texas Observer, amid other publications.

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The Long School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is named for Texas philanthropists Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long. The school is the largest educator of physicians in South Texas, many of whom remain in San Antonio and the region to practice medicine. The school teaches more than 900 students and trains 800 residents each year. As a beacon of multicultural sensitivity, the school annually exceeds the national medical school average of Hispanic students enrolled. The school’s clinical practice is the largest multidisciplinary medical group in South Texas with 850 physicians in more than 100 specialties. The school has a highly productive research enterprise where world leaders in Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cancer, aging, heart disease, kidney disease and many other fields are translating molecular discoveries into new therapies. The Long School of Medicine is home to a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center known for prolific clinical trials and drug development programs, as well as a world-renowned center for aging and related diseases.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, also referred to as UT Health San Antonio, is one of the country’s leading health sciences universities and is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. With missions of teaching, research, patient care and community engagement, its schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have graduated more than 37,000 alumni who are leading change, advancing their fields, and renewing hope for patients and their families throughout South Texas and the world. To learn about the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit www.uthscsa.edu.

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