The Medical Mission
Dr. Jill Seaman

Background

Dr. Jill Seaman has dedicated most of her medical career to providing medical care for people in areas that are remote, and often entirely overlooked by the wider medical community.

A native of Idaho, she earned her BA at Middlebury College and her MD at the University of Washington. Jill completed a rotating internship in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and headed north. She worked for six years with Yupik Eskimos at the bush hospital in Bethel, Alaska. A brief stint with the International Refugee Committee, treating Ethiopian refugees in Sudan in 1985, convinced Jill that it was time to get more medical training.

Jill enrolled in the Family Practice Residency at Natividad Medical Center, in Salinas, California. Her patients there were mostly Spanish-speaking farm workers, finding their way in a new country. While studying for her diploma at the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Jill was recruited by Médecins Sans Frontières to help investigate a strange killing disease in South Sudan. This turned out to be kala azar, or visceral leishmaniasis.

Jill has worked with kala azar in South Sudan since 1989. She arrived to find the biggest epidemic in decades unfolding within a war zone. People in rural Sudan had no access to medical care and seemingly no voice in the medical world. Literally half the population was already dead. This tragedy became a turning point in Jill’s life: working in solidarity with the poor of Sudan has remained her primary focus ever since.

Necessity and minimal resources forced Jill to become something of an expert on kala azar. Over the past 16 years, she and her co-workers have treated tens of thousands of kala azar patients, mostly in open-air clinics and mud huts. She collaborates with MSF (Doctors Without Borders) Holland, the World Health Organization, and other NGOs to develop treatment protocols, field-test drugs, write academic articles, and educate Sudanese and Ethiopian staff. The tide of death brought on by kala azar has largely turned.

In 1999, Jill and her Dutch colleague Sjoukje de Wit decided that another epidemic required their attention. Tuberculosis often co-exists with kala azar, in a population which is already weakened by malnutrition and the difficulties brought on by war. Treating TB is difficult, in that it requires at least six months of daily pill-taking - quite a challenge for a semi-nomadic, illiterate population living in a war zone. Financed by donations from friends, the Sudan Tuberculosis Project of the International Medical Relief Fund (now under the care of Crosscurrents International Institute) has achieved cure rates well above those expected by the World Health Organization, on a budget of a few hundred dollars per patient. As always, training Sudanese health care staff is a major focus of the project.

Jill’s work was recognized by Time Magazine, when it profiled her as one of its 10 “Heroes of Medicine” in 1997. Perhaps the sweetest recognition is her naming by the Nuer. Jill is known throughout Nuerland as Chotnyang, the beautiful multi-toned brown cow without horns. The Nuer revere their cows. There is no reward quite like seeing a patient who was carried in, too weak or crippled to walk, able to run alongside his or her cows again. It is both humbling and rewarding. That keeps Jill going in her voluntary medical missionary efforts.