October 15, 2012 | The Editors

Dr. Ponni Subbiah: mission is the motivator

After 15 years at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, Ponni Subbiah, MD, MPH, joined PATH recently as leader of our Drug Development program, which grew out of our affiliation with OneWorld Health. She spoke with Communications Officer Elena Pantjushenko. You can see the full interview on the Drug Development Blog.

Q. Who has inspired you most?

Woman in blue blouse smiling.
Dr. Ponni Subbiah, director of our drug development program. Photo: PATH.

My mother. She grew up in India in a very traditional house and came to America by herself as a Fulbright scholar. She decided to stay in the US because she thought my two sisters and I would have more opportunities here. It took a lot of courage. She persevered, became a teacher, and now she is retired.

Q. What interested you in going into medicine?

A. Some of my aunts and uncles were doctors in India, so I was intrigued by their work when I was quite young. Also, growing up in Minnesota, I remember our neighborhood kids would all go to Sunday school. My family is Hindu, but my sisters and I wanted to join the neighborhood kids at church because they seemed to be having a lot of fun. Through church, I got exposed to missionary work. Some of the missionaries were in the medical field, and they would come in and talk about their experiences in the field. So I decided when I was in third grade that I wanted to be a doctor.

Q. How did you get started at Pfizer and what were you doing there?

A. I joined Pfizer as a medical director and was a clinical lead for two major Alzheimer’s disease studies that were being conducted in multiple countries. I loved the work. It really exposed me to global health, working with Alzheimer’s leaders around the world, seeing and learning all the cultural differences and social stigmas that Alzheimer’s disease carried. It enhanced my research skills, and I also began to see the power of what we were doing to help patients affected by this devastating disease.

Group of women standing in a courtyard.
Ponni at the Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda. Photo: Courtesy of Ponni Subbiah.

Q. You were a Pfizer global health fellow in Uganda. What was that experience like?

A. I was connected to a group called Health Volunteers Overseas, a nonprofit dedicated to education and training of local health care providers in areas of unmet medical need. I worked in Kampala at Mulago Hospital.

During that time, I got introduced to another group called Reach Out. Every Friday, we would go to this little church a couple of hours drive from the main hospital, and each of us would get a corner, and we would put up a curtain, interview patients, and provide basic medical care. Any HIV patients could come to the clinic, and we would try to treat any outpatient symptoms, referring them to the hospital if needed.

For me this was an amazing experience. Every morning we would start with yoga exercises, then go to our corners and do our work. At some point in the afternoon, it was tea time. Everybody would stop, and the ladies—some of them were HIV patients themselves—would make tea, and everyone would sit in the yard. I was a part of this family, not a doctor and a patient. It was a very interesting, very holistic approach to medical care.

Q. What did you see in Mulago that changed you as a doctor?

A. In the hospital, a man in his early twenties had been admitted with tuberculosis: it had affected his spine and was pressing on his spinal cord. He couldn’t walk. He came into the hospital, but he could not be helped. He had been sitting in that hospital for a month. If that were to happen here, in this country, it would be an emergency and would have been treated right away. But because of the lack of resources, this young man ended up being paralyzed. It was a frustrating experience for me as a doctor to watch that.

Q. What motivates you?

A. It’s the mission of our work. I keep images in my mind of the patients I saw in Uganda—the people I’ve met and the need I saw. I remember those times in Kampala, when I felt so hopeless and unable to assist those in dire need. And now, I feel like I have been given an opportunity to do something about it. I feel empowered and accountable.

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