Condessa Curley’s address

Photo: Condessa Curley

For UC Davis alumna and physician Condessa Curley, doing what she loves — serving with underserved populations and in developing  countries — has been what matters. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis photo)

Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef’s introduction

And now for our final speaker, Dr. Condessa Curley. Dr. Curley is a graduate of the UC Davis School of Medicine and is currently on the staff of the Eisner Pediatric and Family Medical Center in Los Angeles.

She is the 2008 California Physician of the Year as well as the recipient of the School of Medicine’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

Both awards recognize her work to bring much-needed medical care and equipment to impoverished areas of Africa through the nonprofit organization she founded, Project Africa Global.

She’s widely praised as a visionary leader, mentor and educator. Dr. Curley?

By Condessa Curley

The question of what really matters is one I entered UC Davis with in 1992. What happened during my medical school tenure here gave me the tools to begin my journey, which has helped me to find that which matters.

Vumile was lying on the side of the road near a rural village in Swaziland Africa. We stopped our vehicle to inquire how we could help.

She could barely speak, but when I greeted her we made eye contact. Her eyes told the story of a mother’s love, a wife’s submission, a caring friend, and a trusted confidante. They also told of an incomprehensible depth of sadness as she lay dying alone on the side of the road as this was her fate for contracting AIDS.

I soon began to agonize over how I could help her, what could I do to soothe her pain. As I rummaged through my backpack, I felt absolutely helpless. I found nothing I could use to assist her. I am a doctor. I am supposed to help the suffering, ease their pain, and offer a course of treatment to cure or at minimum palliation.

I had no pain medications to give her. My stethoscope could barely hear her heart sounds because of the fluid that had accumulated in her lungs. I could not offer her a cool moist towel to moisten her lips as I had only a bottle of water, which was warm from the heat of the hot African sun.

As I continued to frantically rummage through my backpack, my hands became still. I thought how could my medical training fail me now?

I then realized that I had forgotten one of the first questions I had been asked by my preceptor, Dr. Faith Fitzgerald: “What is at the core of the human experience?” I then realized I had what she needed. It was in my hands.

As death approached, I sat with her, moistening her lips with water, bathing a body that was so thin that one could count every bone. Her weak voice began to change to soft moans.

As she took that final long shallow breath, her piercing beautiful black eyes began to change. There was a peace, a thank you, that I will never forget as she transitioned to join those who had gone before her.

At that point I realized that my medical school training had not failed me. I had forgotten how therapeutic touch could be for both the patient and the provider.

Taking care of the sick, underserved and vulnerable populations, whether here in the United States, Africa or elsewhere in the world, we as health care providers face the same dilemmas and sense of helplessness when faced with life-threatening illness and death.

We must remember that, in the end, it all comes back to the power of touch when words and feelings cannot be expressed.

When asked why do I do what I do, I can only respond by saying, through the many challenges of working with underserved populations and in developing countries, I have placed myself in the best classroom in the world.

I get to learn from people who never tire of teaching me the depth of the kindness and generosity of the human spirit in health and in suffering.

This in turn continues to renew my commitment to serve with the same energy and excitement of a first-year medical student. I vividly remember my first day of medical school orientation at here at Davis.

I was, at the age of 38, the oldest medical student in my class. As I was thinking about what it took to get here, I heard these words, “Do what you love and everything else will follow.” This piece of advice still rings true today and is the reason why I do what I do.

Condessa M. Curley is a UC Davis School of Medicine alumna and founder of Project Africa Global.