William (Bill) Foege became fascinated in the field of medicine and as a teenager had a goal of practicing medicine in Africa.  His fascination came from his uncle who was a missionary and from reading about Schweitzer.  When he was 14 years old, he was in a body cast for many months.

When Bill was young, he was known for the pranks he would pull on people.  For example, at dinner he would sneak up behind his mother and tie the apron she was wearing to her chair.  Later as Bill’s fame grew, people would claim that his practical jokes led him to become a disruptor – in this case the world’s approach to public health.

Dr. Foege chose public health as his medical specialty.  During the 20th century, smallpox was estimated to have caused 300-500 million deaths.  Dr. Foege was the chief of the Smallpox Eradication Program for the Centers for Disease Control.  While there was a vaccine for smallpox, it was ineffective in densely populated regions.  Under Dr. Foege’s leadership, the eradication of smallpox also focused on prevention through personal protection and contact tracing.  The eradication of smallpox also required a unified global effort where every country did its part to enforce eradication protocols.  As a result, smallpox is one of only two diseases to have been eradicated from the earth permanently.  Dr. Foege became the disruptor who changed the way we contain diseases.

For Dr. Foege, public health is something that is deeply personal.  He has an empathy for those who suffer and has an ability to recall their personal stories.  His life has focused on child survival and development.  He has worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carter Center (formed by President Jimmy Carter).  He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

Deeply felt empathy is a driver of many successful outward focusing careers.  Those with empathy have a life’s mission to raise the status of those they work with.  It’s the ability to understand the lives of others.

Empathy can actually be seen in children as young as 18 months and it becomes more prevalent when children are 5 or 6.  Children of empathetic parents have a greater tendency to being empathetic.  Empathy can be further developed by spending time with people who are different from themselves.  Meditation and reading novels with a cultural focus can also increase empathy.

You can become too empathetic by always putting your feelings behind others.  You can burn out by becoming too involved in the challenges of others.

For Dr. Foege, his lifetime pursuit of practical jokes balanced the downside of being too empathetic.  The practical jokes also made him more human to those he worked with.

There is a concern that empathy is fading as a virtue in our society today as we become more inward focused.  The cynicism that is rampant in our society also casts doubts on those who are empathetic.

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“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”  – Theodore Roosevelt

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