Ann Marie Nelson, MD has been a long-time hero of mine from afar. If you don’t know who she is and what she has done, then after reading this interview – you will see why! She is brilliant, selfless, kind hearted, and is simply an inspiration!
Dr. Nelson is an anatomic and clinical pathologist with more than 30 years’ experience in global infectious disease pathology and is committed to improving health care by promoting timely and accurate diagnoses, especially in parts of the world where resources are limited. She is currently Infectious Disease Pathology Consultant at the Joint Pathology Center and Professor of Pathology (visiting) at Duke University. The focus of her work has been in HIV/AIDS pathology in the US and in sub-Saharan Africa. Currently she works on educational projects and capacity building in anatomic pathology, and linking anatomic pathology to ongoing clinical and epidemiologic research. She is a founding member of InPaLa (International Pathology and Laboratory Medicine), ASAP (African Strategies for Advancing Pathology) and serves as co-chair of the subcommittee on education for the ASCP Partners in Pathology initiative.
Recently, I had the good fortune of meeting her in person and we sat down to talk about her amazing life and career, and what she continues to do to contribute to the world.
Q: Your entire career has been focused on improving the lives of others, through helping people get the care they need by improving access, education, and opportunity. What inspired you to pursue a career in global health in the first place especially as it relates to working through pathology?
A: I’ve always had a desire to travel even since I was young – I thought I wanted to do something involving travelling – something like photography. When I was older, I worked as a medical technician and the pathologist I worked under advised me to pursue medical school. It was Vietnam war time though, so the odds of going to medical school were 30:1 in California – but an opportunity arose to go to medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico. I did, and this was my first time living outside of the country. While there, I would participate in medical outreach projects orchestrated by the medical school to serve the rural community members. Naturally, since I was a Med Tech, I would run the laboratory point-of-care diagnostics for the outreach. We would screen for parasites for example, and this got me interested in infectious diseases.
I thought at first, I would pursue pediatrics, but pathology drew me in. In 1979, I took a course in ‘Parasites for Medical Technicians’ and met the folks in Tropical Medicine at UCLA. I met Dr. Marietta Voge, who had written a book in Parasitology, and she became a mentor to me. Also, at the course, there was a pathologist named Dr. Daniel Connor, from the AFIP [Armed Forces Institute of Pathology], who was the editor of the ‘Atlas of Pathology of Tropical and Extraordinary Diseases’. He gave a lecture on his fascinating work which took place all around the world, but at length in Uganda, and this was the inspiration for me. I thought “that’s what I want to do!”. Dr. Connor would become like a father figure to me, and to this day my son calls him Grandpa. He has always been an important supporter and mentor throughout my career.
Fast forward, I finished my residency training in pathology and had the opportunity to spend four months at the AFIP working with the Infectious disease pathology department. A few months later, they invited me to take a job with them – which I did.
One of the hospitals in Africa that the AFIP supported was the Karawa hospital in the Ubangi territory in the former Zaire. I worked for a few months in the hospital there. While there, I met an African physician who had just returned from completing his master’s in public health at Tulane University. His name is Sambe Duale – I am now married to him. [She said this point with a smile and we both giggled at how charming this story was!]
Towards the end of my work at Karawa, I was asked to help bring pathology services to Kinshasa in a collaboration with the NIH, CDC, and the Tropical Medicine Institute of Antwerp to work on Project SIDA [the first project on AIDS in Africa]. I began working with Jim [James] Curran, Tom Quinn, and Peter Piot, who were some of the people leading the project. I worked at the Medical School in the Department of Pathology from the fall of 1986, and continued to work there until 1991 when we were evacuated out [by the US government due to the civil unrest that brought violence to the capital].
After that, I continued to work in infectious disease pathology in the US, waiting for my son to graduate from high school before considering working abroad again. In that time, I continued to be heavily involved in IAP [International Academy of Pathology], working to organize meetings, and contributing to building educational systems. I have given world-wide lectures in at least 23 countries, in all continents except for Antarctica. I retired from full time practice in 2015.
After my son graduated from high school, I decided to work in Africa again on a Fulbright in Tanzania and Uganda. Professor Nelson Sewankambo, who was the head of Makerere University College of Health Sciences, invited me to mentor the young pathologists at Makerere University. Robert Lukande was one of them – he is now Chair of the pathology department there. We worked and wrote several papers together, focusing on AIDS and autopsy. I gave lectures to multiple departments, mentored staff, and made connections. I went and built partnerships with everyone I could. You have to just go and talk to people, and ask them “What can we do?”
Q: You worked to conduct a landmark survey of African pathologists to determine the status of pathology resources in Sub-Saharan Africa. What were some of the key findings and how did you collect all this data?
A: The idea for the survey came when I was in Victoria Falls, South Africa for a pathology conference, when I was speaking with Martin Hale. The realization that most of the conference presenters were foreign pathologists, not African pathologists, struck us. We who had been working in Africa knew the answer as to why – there weren’t enough African pathologists. But there wasn’t any data, nobody knew how bad the situation really was. The idea evolved over the next decade, Dan Milner helped to put together an on-line survey that was translated into French and Portuguese. When we finished the survey in 2014, there were less than 800 pathologists in Sub-Saharan Africa. The question then became, why aren’t there more African pathologists? How do you advocate for this to improve?
The data was largely based on person to person connections. We had to reach out individually, involving people who spoke multiple languages, made phone calls, sent emails…we worked for hundreds and hundreds of hours. You have to really just get out on the street and talk to people.
This was the starting point so that we could measure improvement. We are now working to update the survey and measure the progress that’s been made.
Q: I’ve heard you have the nickname “Mama” in and outside of Africa. How did this come about?
A: In 2006, it was the 100th anniversary of the IAP, and there was a pathologist from Nigeria who I had known, and he unofficially crowned me the “Mother of African Pathologists.” It stuck because people still refer to me as “Mama.” [Dr. Nelson told this story with a warm smile, and it was clear that this designation is an honor for her – I can easily tell that it is her kind soul and motherly nature that make people feel trust in her – “Mama” is absolutely a perfect fit.]
-Dana Razzano, MD is a Chief Resident in her third year in anatomic and clinical pathology at New York Medical College at Westchester Medical Center and will be starting her fellowship in Cytopathology at Yale University in 2020. She was a top 5 honoree in ASCP’s Forty Under 40 2018 and was named to The Pathologist’s Power List of 2018. Follow Dr. Razzano on twitter @Dr_DR_Cells.