Heroes come in all shapes, sizes and notoriety. There are those heroes who receive ticker tape parades up Broadway, are acknowledged by the President at a State of Union Address or even become President of a nation after being in jail for decades. Then there are those heroes who day in and day out, often putting themselves at risk, who work hard to make the world a better place for those who cry out for help.
Dr. Jason Baker of New York City is such a hero.
Baker is an Assistant Professor at Cornell Medical College . He graduated from Emory University and attended its medical school. You can see him making the rounds at Weill/Cornell Hospital giving gentle care to patients.
Being a Type 1 Diabetic himself, Dr. Baker has organized a global health initiative to assist persons with diabetes in places like Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and India. He is the founder of the amazing "Marjorie's Fund" to fight diabetes in the developing world. He has affected thousands of lives in America, Africa and India.
Dr. Baker is openly gay and a member of the Board of Directors of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and is to be married to his partner Jim Augustine next year.
So here are "Five Questions For ......Dr. Jason Baker":
1. You have type 1 Diabetes what impact did it have on your life when diagnosed with it? When did you find out?
Being a rising third-year medical student, my youthful infallibility had not yet been pierced by any substantial health crisis. At the age of twenty-five, I was finishing a summer project in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia researching the prevalence of HIV and hepatitis C in patients with TB. Working in the developing world was a turning point in my life that would give birth to a love of international medicine. But in the last week of my rotations in Tbilisi, I developed a fever and chills, then bad diarrhea. I attributed it all to bad borscht I had eaten the day before.
Returning to Atlanta to begin my third year of medical school, my body started to lose substantial weight. There is a reason for the saying “Physician, (don't’) heal thyself”. Though surrounded by medicine and its promise of cures, I simply couldn't face my fears that I might have a real illness.
By the time I started my pediatric rotation, I had dwindled to a shadow of my former self.. The corners of my mouth were so dry they sometimes bled, My appearance, in fact made the children shy away from the “scary” doctor. My grades suffered and rumors circulated that I was on drugs. No one thought diabetes, no one. Least of all me. Finally, to appease the requests of my friends and family, I went to a doctor to get the bottom of my weight loss. Within a few hours, my life had changed forever.
The doctor ushered me into the emergency room. I spent two sleepless, stunned nights in the hospital, where the concepts of finger-stick tests and injection techniques were pounded (or pricked) into my consciousness. At night I felt alone, scared, and extraordinarily sorry for myself. Turning to God, to ask that all-too-common question: “Why me?” there was a realization that I had never been alone.
In the months that followed, I was also diagnosed with aplastic anemia and told that, without a bone marrow biopsy, I would die. At the National Institutes of Health for my bone marrow transplant, the doctors informed me that my body had been in a starvation state. My bone marrow had nearly been destroyed in the process. But by some grace, the biopsy was a success. The experience had been a second brush with death, a second shock of mortality. Emotionally I knew there had to be a reason for my survival. A change was in order.
Entering my third year in medical school, a sense of clarity had ushered into my life. I decided to use my own experience as inspiration for my studies. My diagnosis had come just at the moment when I would need to decide my field of expertise. Finding meaning in my own healthcare journey, led me to devote myself professionally to the care of others living with diabetes.
In many ways diabetes has enriched my life, enhancing my appreciation for the simple pleasures, for my physical health, for my spiritual health, and has given me a framework for a successful career in medicine. My greatest advice to any person with type 1 diabetes is to seek strength in this challenge, and embrace diabetes by sharing your story and increasing awareness in others. Use the resources you are given, remembering there are many others who are far less fortunate. In so doing, you will control your diabetes rather than it controlling you.
2. You have become a legendary figure around the world fighting diabetes among the poor and those without easy access to care - especially in Africa. What has driven you to such work
I am blessed to have access to a wealth of resources to help control my diabetes. Sadly, this is not a universal right. My first experience with managing type 1 diabetes in the developing world was during a summer rotation I did in Ghana during my 4th year of medical school, where I found the Ghanaian diet to be particularly challenging (replete as it is with starches and carbohydrates). I was constantly chasing both high and low blood sugars, and more than once found my insulin to be rendered useless by the intense Africa heat (in many places I stayed and worked AC was a concept not a reality).
At least I had the insulin to inject but no finger stick supplies or HbA1c testing. Uncertain and erratic food supply, was likely to be comprised of starchy and glycemically unfriendly foods. Each time I meet another person with type 1 diabetes while traveling in the developing world, I count my blessings for the suitcase full of personal medical supplies that I enjoy. The stories from my patients in these remote areas have motivated me to take charge of my own diabetes. Those moments with my patients also motivated me to share my medical wealth with others not as fortunate.
3. What is "Marjorie's Fund' and how did it get started? How can others participate in it?
One of the more poignant stories is that of Marjorie, whom I met while working in Uganda in 2010. Marjorie was 3 years old when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and just 29 years old when she died, having succumbed to diabetes-related kidney failure. Unlike so many people with type 1 diabetes in Uganda, Marjorie was one of the lucky ones. Marjorie had been provided enough insulin and glucose testing supplies to allow her to make it to that age. Uganda is starved for resources that would have allowed Marjorie to keep her blood sugar levels under good enough control to avoid diabetic complications.
While she awaited a kidney transplant – a treatment she never received – Marjorie relied on weekly dialysis treatments to stay alive. More often than not, Marjorie could not afford such treatments, and faced a preventable slow and painful death. Yet throughout this painful time, Marjorie continued her efforts to educate both patients and healthcare providers on how to better manage type 1 diabetes, in hopes of preventing others from suffering her fate. Speaking at various medical conferences, Marjorie recounted her story, and fought to change a system which had limited her own care.
Through this was born “Marjorie’s Fund”, a not for profit I started in 2011, which aims to improve the resources and education for type 1 diabetes patients in the developing world, and promoting research toward ultimately curing and preventing this disease. Without better resources, more patients like Marjorie will survive into adulthood, only to suffer and inevitably die from the many complications associated with late diagnosis and poor diabetes control. Marjorie’s Fund aims to help people living with type 1 diabetes in the developing world not only to survive diagnosis, but to thrive after diagnosis.
Marjorie’s Fund needs help. People can of get involved in Marjorie’s Fund in many ways, including donating financially to the cause and spreading the word about our work. Anyone interested in volunteering with Marjorie’s Fund please contact me. We are having a fundraiser for the Fund in October and we would love to have you attend the event.
4. You are very religious and active in the faith based community. Do you find it difficult to reconcile your gayness with organized religion?
God wants us to use the talents we were given, and that to waste energy staying closeted keeps us from rising to our full potential. We are meant to celebrate life, to celebrate love. I truly believe this is God's wish for us. I am blessed with a loving partner, family, friends and accepting church home here in NYC (Marble Collegiate) That said, there was a time when I was spiritually wounded by an ex partner who decided that being gay was evil, against God, and that our 3 ½ year relationship was damned.
I was in love, and become confused for the first time in my life that maybe I had been wrong. Was God’s test for us that our devotion to God must be through our denial of our sexuality? I sank into a depression which lasted a year. With the help of friends, family and my church I healed. The experience left me more resolute than ever that my relationship to God was central to my life as a gay man, and central in my relationship with my partner. We have too many talents to waste to spend time denying and hating. It kills me that others are going through, or will go through, this journey.
5. In your world travels, do you find yourself in certain countries keeping a low profile about being gay because of legal and culture reasons? Does it make you feel like you are back in the closet?
Launching Marjorie’s Fund, in part with the help of the powerhouse of LGBT friends I am blessed to have, has brought this issue to a head for me. Even as I write this, concern grows that if people I work with in Africa and other areas of the world read this blog they may sever our relationship, limiting the good Marjorie’s Fund could do in helping people living with type 1 diabetes globally. However, I refuse to muzzle myself nor my loving relationship with my partner. While the mission of Marjorie’s Fund is to help people with type 1 diabetes, both my identities as a gay male and as person with type 1 diabetes have helped shape who I am today, and therefore have been vital in preparing me for this work.
Change doesn't just happen without risk, without speaking out, living honestly and openly, unapologetically The brave people who fought for the right of my partner and I to safely hold hands in public in NYC didn't begin that fight in a save environment. The same goes for many of the countries I work in through Marjorie’s Fund.
That said, in order to do the work of an NGO like Marjorie’s Fund well, you have to get to know the people with whom you work, to build trust through sharing about yourself, your life. Every time I'm invited in to a home abroad I fear the questions will come “so are you married? Tell us about your girlfriend”
My partner suggested I reply “I prefer not to talk about my personal life” but truthfully I PREFER to talk about that, to sing about my love and life from every rooftop in Africa to every hill in India. However, I can't proclaim my joy. To do so might not only endanger myself, but also the people I work in some areas where by law they may be required to report me to the authorities as a gay man, or risk imprisonment.
I've realized it is not safe for me to advertise my being gay, at least not now, when I am working abroad with Marjorie’s Fund abroad. However, I wear my wedding ring proudly and refuse to hide who I am, compromise who I am, compromise the beautiful life I am building with my partner. If asked directly I will speak the truth.