A doctor’s mission: Patricia Brock Howard’s quest for global health

It all started with an ad in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Dr. Patricia Brock Howard had taken some time off from medicine to raise her children. She was flipping through the magazine when an ad seeking medical supply donations caught her eye.

“I cut it out,” Brock Howard recalls. “And I sent away for more information.”

It was the 1990s, so rather than Googling, she waited for a reply via the mailbox..

Around the same time, she had an opportunity to go on a medical mission to El Salvador with her church, West U Methodist.

Brock Howard decided to get her passport and serve on the mission. Everything seemed to gel. Before she knew it, she was on the plane to El Salvador, reading the information that had just arrived in the mail about the ad in the AMA journal.

What she learned was disturbing. A doctor working in Liberia had found that breathing tubes were being reused during operations. He was asking the U.S. medical community to send much-needed supplies.

While Brock Howard was in El Salvador, she saw firsthand the working conditions that local health care providers were experiencing — as well as the equipment shortage.

When she returned to Houston, she put two and two together, realizing that untold numbers of medical professionals around the world desperately needed supplies. She also knew that she was surrounded by resources that could help. She started reaching out.

“I had to basically cold-call people,” she says. “But I was on fire to get this thing going.”

Brock Howard established a recycling program for unused medical equipment and supplies, matching donations with health care providers in other countries who desperately needed them. She wrote letters and gave presentations at her Sunday school class. “Every time I gave a talk, there was one awesome connection,” she said.

Hayne Blakely was one of the individuals who heard Brock Howard speak. “She said, ‘There’s such a need. I’m going to see what I can do to get it going,’” he recalls. Blakely had been to Latin America before with his career in oil and gas. “I had experienced the health care system personally,” he said. “I knew how desperate the situation was. It struck a chord.”

He approached Brock Howard after her presentation. “I don’t know anything about medicine,” he told her. “But I do know a lot about international shipping.” He offered to help — and became a board member.

It didn’t take long for the medical community to jump on board. “The great thing about it was that I lived in Houston, Texas, which is very international and very generous,” Brock Howard says.

And that’s how Medical Bridges was born. The nonprofit, established in 1997, procures and distributes medical supplies to underserved communities. “We organize supplies for a vast network of people already doing this work,” she says. Since its founding, the nonprofit has sent supplies to more than 80 countries.

The organization estimates that the U.S. medical community generates nearly $9 billion in surplus products every year. “That’s perfectly usable medical equipment,” Blakely says. “It may not be the newest and greatest. But it works, and it’s incredible how much we waste.”

At first, the board stored supplies in members’ garages. “Then we leased a building, and it was all we could afford,” Blakely says. “Many things happened that you couldn’t script.”

He recalls when a doctor in Bolivia needed neonatal units. “We didn’t have any, but that afternoon, Texas Children’s called us,” he says. The hospital was revamping and offered Medical Bridges the neonatal units it would be replacing. “That’s the way it’s been every year,” he says. “There’s always a surprise.”

Medical Bridges provides $8 million worth of supplies each year, Brock Howard says. No longer all-volunteer, the group has a CEO, director of operations, global health manager and procurement associate on staff.

“To keep it humming along, it takes a bevy of people,” she says. “That’s why Medical Bridges is a perfect name. A bridge doesn’t stand on one pillar.”

After founding Medical Bridges, Brock Howard decided to return to work; she started at Ben Taub Hospital.

She had always worked in medicine. The Indiana native became a nurse’s aide and then a nurse, after earning her degree at Ball State University. After four years in the profession, she saw a group of medical students in the intensive care unit — and she realized that’s where she wanted to be, too. “I wanted more education,” she says. “I knew there was a next step, but I didn’t know what.”

She headed to the University of Louisville in Kentucky to earn her medical degree, then to Dallas for her residency, ultimately landing in Houston. After a decade in the profession, and her time starting Medical Bridges, she became increasingly aware of the gap between the medical community and world health organizations.

“People didn’t know about each other, and institutions didn’t know what was going on,” she says.

To address this lack of information, she co-founded the Wainerdi Global Health Roundtable in 2012. The idea was to regularly convene faculty and administrators across the Texas Medical Center for conversations over dinner — encouraging previously unconnected global health endeavors.

Eventually, the roundtable merged with the Houston Global Health Collaborative, an effort among students in Texas Medical Center, to unite and further global health.

Now, Brock Howard serves on the board of the collaborative, which hosts quarterly roundtable dinners, an annual conference, grants, online education and a fundraising gala.

“It’s such a positive environment to be around people who do global health,” she says. “They’re so varied, but they all have this common thread.”

Brock Howard also continues to serve on the board of Medical Bridges. She has spent the past 10 years at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where she serves as associate professor in the department of emergency medicine. She is also the deputy chair for the department. Before that, she was a clinical instructor at Baylor College of Medicine’s department of surgery. Though she no longer performs surgery, she passes on her passion to students and to doctors practicing in other countries.

“If you find an opportunity — or have an aspiration — don’t ignore it,” she says. “When things start happening for you, don’t ignore them. These opportunities, even when they seem like a one-off, can change your trajectory.”

In her own case, she never thought that she would end up helping to start two nonprofits and becoming a champion for global health.

“In my own story, the timing of things that happened were beyond me,” she says. “Consider possibility — and don’t be afraid of the unknown as you go through your life and career.”

Lindsay Peyton is a Houston-based writer.

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