Thank you, Isobel, for kicking us off. And to all of Atul’s friends, colleagues, and especially his family members joining us today—including his mother, Sushila; his sister, Sumeeta; his wife Kathleen; and his children Hattie, Walker, and Hunter— thank you so much. This is a family enterprise and we’re so grateful to you all for supporting Atul’s decision to come back into government.
We could not feel more excited, more ready for Atul to come and join the USAID staff. I could not be more pleased to have the honor of swearing him in as our new Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Global Health.
It might be tempting, when you hear about Atul’s early life, to assume he was destined for a career in medicine. Both of his parents were doctors—his father, a urologist, and his mother, a pediatrician. One of the earliest signs of his innate powers of diagnosis happened when he was in fourth grade, while his cousin was in town for a visit. His parents weren’t home and his cousin developed a fever. Instead of telling his babysitter, Atul called his physician mother, describing the symptoms in clinical detail: a 100-degree fever, a runny nose, no signs of throat irritation, no nausea or vomiting.
It was, what his mom called, “her earliest memory of his observational skill.” But despite these preternatural medical instincts, Atul gravitated toward another of his loves: music. He wanted to be a rock star. He traveled from Athens, Ohio to Stanford University with a love for punk and new wave, for X and The Cure. He also travelled with hundreds of, not books, but records. He even tried his hand writing a few gloomy songs and performed them live. Is there anything this man—Rhodes Scholar, Guggenheim fellow, surgeon, health policy advisor, best-selling author—is there anything he can’t do? The answer is yes. His music was, in his words, “terrible.”
Though Atul may not have made it as a traditional rockstar, he is a rockstar in every other sense.
As a 26-year-old yet to complete medical school, he led a 75-person health policy unit inside the Clinton White House while sleeping three hours a night and taking conference calls during his honeymoon. As a practicing endocrine and general surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, he logged thousands of procedures, more than100 each year. He has extended his expertise to new generations of students, serving as a professor at both Harvard Medical School and the School of Public Health.
Through his work with the World Health Organization, he led the development of a pre-operative checklist—two minutes worth of questions that allowed surgical teams to minimize simple mistakes and significantly reduce complications and deaths. It is now used as a safety standard in nearly all operating rooms around the world. Checklists have gone well beyond the health sphere; they are now standard nudges, incorporated across businesses and into countless public policy domains. We look forward to introducing checklists in a range of domains here at USAID to help us count on that tool.
And through his ventures, Ariadne Labs, Lifebox, and CIC Health, he has brought innovations to global health systems and operating theaters, while expanding access to COVID-19 tests and vaccines to individuals, schools, and businesses.
Despite these accomplishments, most people know Atul not as a doctor or an advocate, but as a prolific and gripping writer. For decades now, in the pages of “The New Yorker” and in his four best selling books, he has rendered the often intimidating and dense realm of medicine into approachable terrain.
In Atul’s dispatches from the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic or his examination of the costs and trade-offs of our healthcare system, you find thoughtful examinations that have helped reshape medicine for the better. But you also meet richly drawn characters, hear from patients as well as experts, and you’re continually reminded that health is not just about vaccines and treatments, it is about individuals, and the need to offer individuals more humane care.
Perhaps that’s why he has shown a willingness to bare his own soul to illustrate the systemic changes necessary in medicine. In one of his early pieces for the New Yorker, one most of us will never forget, he described in harrowing detail how, as a resident, he nearly lost a young woman on the operating table after botching an attempt at a tracheostomy—a distressing reminder that despite the God complexes, surgeons are all too human.
And in his latest book, “Being Mortal,” he relives his father’s decline and ultimate death from a spinal cord tumor, driving home in words streaked with grief and pain, just how unprepared we all are as a society to offer people a means of dying with dignity.
If there has been a thread through Atul’s life, either in his practice or in his writing, it is this focus on individuals, individuals who stand to benefit enormously from larger-scale reforms. “He has an uncanny eye for systems and structures,” his longtime editor at the “The New Yorker,” Henry Finder said, “but what makes him a powerful storyteller is that he’s gripped and engaged by the way that they affect individuals.”
When asked how he manages the stress of writing on top of all his various roles, he said the biggest stress came from not wanting to give up any of his responsibilities. “I’m a sponge,” Atul said. “I love to spread myself as far as possible.”
But today, Atul is giving up his other pursuits to focus on pulling the levers of change from inside the U.S. government. Like so many in this Administration who see a pandemic raging across the globe and a government, our own government, in need of renewal and restoration, Atul has decided to answer the call to public service once again. He has set aside his scalpel, putting down his pen, and taking up the helm of one of this Agency’s largest and most vital bureaus.
“He could have been content to write influential, best-selling books and articles about the ways our health care systems are disorganized…” Atul’s friend and Ariadne collaborator, Asaf Bitton, said. “But he aimed higher.” Atul always aims higher.
In his new role, Atul will spearhead the Global Health Bureau’s coordination with the COVID-19 Task Force, and be a key part of our GlobalVax initiative to make sure the vaccines the United States is donating globally actually get into people’s arms.
It’s here, where his knowledge of health systems and how to strengthen them will be crucial. We don’t just want to end a pandemic; we want to use this global effort to fight COVID-19 to build back better in anticipation of future threats—and knowing that out there lie countless public health opportunities. It can be hard to see past our Omicron-saturated present, but the promise of mRNA vaccine technology means that we may be on the verge of new doses potentially to treat malaria, HIV, tuberculosis—even cancer.
As we race to end our current malady, we need to leave behind the healthcare architecture necessary to eliminate those diseases that we have fought for decades and those we may encounter in the future. With Atul’s leadership, we will help partner countries strengthen their infrastructure to treat and vaccinate their populations while improving their capacity to detect future outbreaks.
In addition to his focus on strengthening health systems, Atul will lead efforts to prevent needless child and maternal deaths, respond to infectious disease threats and expand our family planning programming to better address the health and rights of women and girls. And critically, Atul will bring his characteristic mentorship and empathy to the nine offices of the Global Health Bureau as they work to spread health equity around the world.
“No matter how many titles and accolades he gathers,” Kris Torgeson, Atul’s colleague from LifeBox said, “Atul can still disarm one by being at heart a kid from Ohio who is still in awe of every new opportunity and challenge he takes on with an attitude of gee-whiz wonder.”
I love that: “gee-whiz wonder.”
I personally believe that service is the greatest privilege I’ve had the chance to enjoy in my career, but I also believe I speak for many when I say we at USAID feel really privileged ourselves to have Atul join our ranks. With that, it’s my pleasure to now administer the oath of office.