Since 1977, Boston Children's Hospital has celebrated our Black Achievers, annually recognizing two exceptional employees for their professional accomplishments and service to the community. The year's winners - nominated by their managers and selected by the MLK Observance Committee - will be honored at the hospital's annual Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Observance, January 22, from 11 a.m. to noon, in Folkman Auditorium.
If Venee Tubman, MD, hadn't become a doctor and researcher, she might have made a good private investigator; she has the instincts for it. Although she never doubted that she would work in medicine, it wasn't until she came across a medical mystery that she knew she had found her calling. "I knew that I wanted to be a doctor for a very long time," Tubman says. "It's an interesting combination of getting to be a scientist but also getting to be a teacher and getting to empower people to improve their health."
Those clinical and research interests narrowed when, during her senior year of college, she got an opportunity to help conduct research at Dana-Farber on clinical practice guidelines for treating Sickle Cell Disease (SCD), a genetic blood disorder, in the emergency room. The more she learned about the disease, and the more she got to know its patient population at both Dana-Farber and Boston Children's Hospital, the more she was drawn to studying and treating pediatric blood disorders. In part, she explains, that's because SCD still holds a lot of mystery; although scientists identified the gene responsible for the disease in 1947, the medical community hasn't made as much progress towards a cure for SCD as they have for other genetic disorders. Tubman has a hard time containing her enthusiasm for a good mystery as she explains, "we still haven't figured it out."
That first clinical research experience, and the mentorship she received, were never far from her mind. Years later, while enrolled in medical school in Pennsylvania, she contacted hospitals and research centers looking for more research opportunities and, for the second time, found a home in Boston. Even when a shortage in one of the necessary reagents put an end to the original research project Tubman had returned to Boston for, she slid almost immediately into a new project: a multigenerational family study of an individual who had developed Great Platelet Syndrome, a rare but mild bleeding disorder. "That was a lot of fun work and it peaked my interest in hematology and also made me feel really connected to Boston Children's," she explains. "I chose to stay here for my residency so my one year has turned into 10 and I'm still going."
For Tubman, that experience was much more than the sum of its constituent laboratory and clinic hours; she counts the mentorship and support she received among the top reasons she decided to remain in Boston. And that's something she has strived to pay forward over the course of her own career. She has mentored Visiting Clerkship and Harvard Medical School students, hosting events for students including question and answer sessions on the Ebola outbreak on cable news, Public Radio International and on Facebook. In 2008, she began serving as a volunteer physician in Liberia, which until recently had no established pediatric residency program. "When I first went in 2008, there were no fully trained pediatricians working in the entire country. I was a junior resident and had technically had more training in pediatrics than any of the other practicing physicians at the time," she explains. "That was scary."
In Liberia, she discovered a new mystery. Sub-Saharan Africa has the world's highest rates of SCD, but in the weeks and months she had spent volunteering in Monrovia, Liberia's capital, Tubman had only ever seen one or two cases. "For me to go there once or twice a year for four to eight weeks per year, for two or three years and see one patient with [SCD] in my entire time there seemed strange," she says.
In large part, as Tubman learned when she began to research the problem, that's because many families simply didn’t know their children had the disease. In newborns, SCD disrupts the spleen's functions, leaving them critically vulnerable to a host of infections, including pneumonia and diarrheal disease which are major contributors to infant mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa. Families would bring their child to a medical center, and physicians would then treat whichever infection took hold, only for the undiagnosed SCD to complicate the treatment. "All the things that cause problems in sub-Saharan Africa are going to be exponentially worse for a child with Sickle Cell," Tubman explains. "Knowing the diagnosis up front allows parents and providers to be more cautious with a child."
Answer in hand, Tubman set to work. In 2012, she launched a newborn screening program - newborns diagnosed early with SCD can be given penicillin prophylaxis, which dramatically improves splenic function - and a clinical program for chronic care that cares for children with Sickle Cell, asthma, Cerebral Palsy and seizure disorders among other conditions.
If you ask her today, Tubman isn't sure she would have been to launch those programs if she were anywhere else. "I think this was a learning experience for myself, for the the Boston Children's internal review board and for the Liberian medical centers because we had to learn how to work together," she says. "One of the great things about Boston Children's is that it's a place where you can be a little innovative. It was a huge project but I felt really well supported.
"And I have to say I give a lot of credit to my patients because I travel to Liberia for two months out of the year and I'm not available. They have been incredibly tolerant of that."