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Valerie S. Palmer

Oregon Health & Science University, Global Health Center
Purpose Prize Fellow 2015

A medical researcher creates an education exchange, bringing services to immigrant refugees and raising health-care professionals’ cultural awareness and cooperation.

I was born in South Africa under apartheid. As a person of mixed race, my skin color led to discrimination, in society and within my family. As the oldest girl, I looked after my siblings, cleaned house, prepared meals, cared for farm animals and walked miles to school each day. And when I was sick, I had compassionate medical care from a beloved local physician, whose respect for life stood in sharp contrast to the apartheid regime.

At 17, I left South Africa, eventually finding sanctuary in the United States, where I acquired freedom, education and full enfranchisement previously denied.

My early research stimulated me to create a nonprofit focused on health disorders in low-income countries. Later, in the field and laboratory, I explored neurological disorders across the world. In 2007, when the OHSU Global Health Center opened, I began to share my knowledge with students entering the health professions.

I also immersed myself in Portland’s African and other minority communities; understanding their profound needs led me to create the interprofessional Community Health and Education Exchange, or iCHEE, for short. This six-week program matches OHSU student teams with refugees, recent immigrants and the homeless, who share their backgrounds, experiences and health concerns with the young practitioners. For many students, iCHEE is their first client contact, and this experience is both powerful and memorable.

  • Assisted over 2,000 medically underserved people in the Portland area.
  • Over 7 years, trained more than 400 future healthcare professionals to work with high-need immigrant and other diverse communities.
  • Pioneered inter-professional, community-based education at OHSU, modeling essential components of collaborative team practice.

Students become sensitized to community realities; they acquire basic skills and learn to respect colleagues in disciplines outside their own, fostering collaboration and collegiality. They also learn culture-specific health-related practices and remedies, and confront the complexities and limitations of the healthcare system. ICHEE gives students a wide-ranging global health experience in their own backyard; they become equipped to work with people from backgrounds and cultures that differ from their own.

Beyond iCHEE’s tangible health benefits, students experience life-shaping, one-to-one interactions with diverse people with health concerns arising from war, displacement, internment, malnourishment, poverty and disparities. Yet iCHEE is not a clinic, rather, it is a student-client exchange in up to 40 languages, which benefits both parties and has inspired wide interest in the U.S. and beyond.

I piloted iCHEE at age 55, offering for the first time, community-based interprofessional biomedical student education at OHSU. My experience over three decades gave me a passion for helping future health professionals understand their patients as whole human beings, because I had been a disadvantaged immigrant myself. This work is a “phase shift” from my previous, exclusive focus on biomedical research – a shift I made in order to advance global health, right here, in my adopted Oregon community. When I see community members and health-care providers engaging in a two-way exchange of information, I am pleased to have played a role in helping knowledge flow both ways.