Of 194 W.H.O. member countries, dozens have almost no organized emergency care system, and no dedicated emergency units or triage at most hospitals, and dozens more have serious gaps in basic supplies and equipment.
“These are not costly or complicated interventions, but simple lifesaving measures that can and should be made available to the acutely ill and injured everywhere,” said Dr. Reynolds, a 48-year-old American based in Geneva.
Her recent work has taken her to Cameroon, Egypt, Myanmar, Pakistan, Tunisia, Uganda and Ukraine. Her next stop is Kazakhstan.
“Being able to call a number and get rapid transport to quality emergency care is a luxury currently afforded only to a limited number of countries,” she said. “People really think when they go off to travel, for education or vacation, that someone will be there if they get hit by a bus. That’s just not the case.”
Dr. Reynolds announced her plan to become a doctor when she was 8, inspired in part by her pediatrician. “We moved a lot in my childhood — I went to 10 schools before I graduated high school — and there was a good bit of chaos, but somehow my mother managed to take me to see him over many years,” she said. “Almost no one in my family had gone to college, and his was a powerful example of an important, concrete job that I could understand.”
She went to Columbia University as a pre-med student on a full scholarship, and trained as an emergency medical technician on an ambulance in Chinatown “because it seemed more like the real world.” But she got hooked on the school’s mandatory Great Books program. “Literature, history, philosophy — books I’d never been exposed to growing up,” she said. “I was just blown away by what I was learning, and when I got the chance to stay for graduate school on a fellowship, I did.” She earned a doctorate in literature, but the desire to become a physician never left.
She attended the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, where she was drawn to emergency medicine. “What I loved best was having one foot in the world and one in the hospital — the process of moving from a patient’s account to a diagnosis, having to build a relationship quickly.”
In 2010, she described that experience in the London-based New Left Review. “I spent my early childhood in a trailer” in Texas, she wrote, “so, until I became an emergency physician in Oakland, I thought I knew something about barriers to health care access, and maybe even something about poverty.” Residency training at a public county hospital taught her, she said recently, about how social context affects illness, about how to work creatively with whatever is at hand, and about the enormous range of human experience, even in a wealthy country like the United States.
“I first met Teri early in her medical career, when she was starting her emergency medicine residency in California in a gritty, inner-city hospital,” said Michael Callaham, professor emeritus of emergency medicine at the San Francisco medical school, who was her supervisor during that time and when she was a resident fellow with the Annals of Emergency Medicine, and gave her her first faculty job. “It’s not often you get a medical trainee with a Ph.D. in English literature,” said Dr. Callaham, who remains the scientific journal’s editor in chief.
Dr. Reynolds said that women were still outnumbered in emergency medical care globally, but that that was slowly changing. “I still sit in many meetings around the world where there are few women at the table and none at the head,” she said. But the W.H.O. has put many women in the top positions, and for the first time recently, the majority of its assistant directors general are women. The gender distribution “will impact the tone around the world,” she said. “There are many young women emerging into leadership in the field, and I can’t wait to see what they do.”
One of the greatest pleasures in her current job, she said, is working with young doctors whose paths crossed when they were students, interns and residents, and who are now leaders of emergency care programs in their respective countries. “They are really impressive,” Dr. Reynolds said. “It’s incredible to see them across the table, sent to represent national programs at meetings where I represent W.H.O.”
Dr. Reynolds is quick to credit her many mentors over the years. “It really has led to this perfect job. It’s exactly what I hoped for — and more. Medicine can be a very conservative career path, but a lot of people along the way encouraged me to take risks and gave me room to do it,” from childhood teachers, university deans and medical school professors to her mother, who grew up in rural Mississippi, the youngest of eight.
“She left an impossible home situation at 15 and made her way to Houston, where I grew up. She raised me on her own; my father is from India, but left before I was born. She had a lot of jobs when I was young — cocktail waitress, wig shop, laundromat manager — but she finished college when I was 10 and became a substance abuse counselor,” Dr. Reynolds said.
“She taught me the pleasure of learning, the importance of connecting, and taught me how to be very, very stubborn about getting certain things done. She’s always insisted that it is important to ‘be of use.’” When she was growing up, her mother always told her “you’re a neat kid,” Dr. Reynolds recounted. “She still says that, and it still feels just as good.”
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