Dr. Vivek Murthy was presented with the 2020 Vilcek-Gold Award for Humanism in Healthcare on November 17, 2020, at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Learn Serve Lead meeting, held online. Vivek served as 19th Surgeon General of the United States and was recently appointed co-chair of President-elect Biden’s coronavirus task force. On December 7, the President-elect announced he would nominate Vivek to serve as Surgeon General once again in 2021.
The Vilcek-Gold Award was established in 2019 by the Vilcek Foundation and The Arnold P. Gold Foundation to honor the two foundations’ respective missions. It recognizes foreign-born healthcare professionals whose career achievements demonstrate a commitment to humanistic values in medicine or public health in the United States.
Following the award presentation, Vivek was joined by Mona Hanna-Attisha, the inaugural recipient of the Vilcek-Gold Award in 2019, to discuss stories from his 2020 book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.
Jan T. Vilcek, chairman and CEO of the Vilcek Foundation, and Richard I. Levin, president and CEO of The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, presented the award through a video introduction, along with David J. Skorton, president and CEO of the AAMC. The trio’s remarks underscored the importance of the Vilcek-Gold Award and the values it represents at this moment in time.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated how reliant the United States is on the contributions of immigrant workers—particularly in essential services and throughout healthcare,” said Jan.
“The skill and compassion that foreign-born clinicians bring to our communities deserve great recognition and respect,” said David, who stressed that although immigrants represent only 17% of U.S. workers overall, 28% of physicians and 38% of home health aides in the country are immigrants.
In accepting the award, Vivek expressed gratitude to his parents, and the models they set for him—both as immigrants who persevered as they emigrated from India to the United Kingdom, then to Canada, and finally to the United States, and through their work in building and managing a family medical practice.
“Each day … as they took care of patients and their families, I came to see what a life of service was truly like,” he said, “and how to build a truly human-centered work and community life. It’s what informs the values I hope to pass on to my children.”
Mona, the daughter of immigrants from Iraq, opened the discussion by addressing the commonalities they share not only as dedicated public health professionals but as immigrants to the United States. Vivek responded, “Being an immigrant has had a profound impact on how I’ve experienced the world. . . . So many families come from very different circumstances and end up in the United States far away from the people they love and the circumstances they are familiar with. What really does sustain us—more often than not—are the relationships that we have.”
So many families come from very different circumstances and end up in the United States far away from the people they love.
What really does sustain us—more often than not—are the relationships that we have.
A pediatrician and professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University, Mona brought the United States’ attention to the crisis of lead contamination in the water supply of Flint, Michigan, in 2014. As a mother and a member of the community in Flint, Mona was acutely aware of the disenfranchisement that the people of Flint felt.
In 2015, Vivek traveled to Flint as a representative of the Obama administration, and Mona described how transformative his engagement was for the community: “When you came to Flint during our crisis… you brought with you the credibility and the weight of the federal government. You listened, you were calm, you displayed incredible empathy.”
Mona and Vivek’s reflections on the water crisis in Flint led the two to address the parallels to the challenges the United States faces as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mona described the current time as a “generation-defining moment” and noted that “with crisis comes opportunity.”
Vivek spoke passionately about a need to reimagine and rebuild systems of healthcare that address inequities in our communities, emphasizing that leadership does not only come from those in power, but from individuals. “Part of building [a] larger empathetic culture involves getting out of our silos and creating opportunities for us to see each other’s lives.”
The presentation of the 2020 award and Vivek and Mona’s conversation at the AAMC meeting coincided with the Vilcek Foundation and The Arnold P. Gold Foundation’s announcement of an open call for nominations for the 2021 Vilcek-Gold Award for Humanism in Healthcare. Nominations for the 2021 Vilcek-Gold Award for Humanism in Healthcare may be made through January 24, 2021, 11:59pm EST. The nomination form and eligibility details are available at gold-foundation.org.