February 21, 2015 |

My kind of hero: a global health profile

After doctors gave Bob Dickerson 1 to 20 years to live, he quit his job to launch a new career as a passionate global health advocate.
portrait of Bob Dickerson.
“I have had a wonderful life, beyond what I ever could have imagined,” says Bob Dickerson, who survived 15 years of cancer. Photo: Rebecca Sullivan.

Editor’s Note: Bob Dickerson passed away at the end of May 2015. He is fondly remembered by the many colleagues and friends whose lives he touched and whose work he inspired. We continue to carry his work forward with the urgency and commitment that he modeled for us. This donor profile of Bob Dickerson was written by Lesley Reed, a PATH staff writer and one of his personal friends.

Bob Dickerson was practicing law in Seattle when he was diagnosed with a slow growing and incurable form of cancer in 1999. His doctors gave him anywhere from 1 to 20 years to live.

So, with his characteristic combination of pragmatism and enthusiasm, Bob launched a new career.

Fifteen years later, it’s clear the man with the big heart, boisterous laugh, and tenacious commitment to children has achieved his goal.

Hero on the House floor

I met Bob three years after his diagnosis. By then, he’d become one of Washington State’s most committed advocates for ending global poverty. He volunteered full-time as the leader of the Seattle chapter of RESULTS, an advocacy organization that helps raise political will and funding for anti-poverty programs, including those that tackle global health.

Ever aware of death nipping at his heels, Bob met with members of Congress and global leaders hundreds of times, pressing them to increase funding to prevent the deaths of children; address HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria; and ensure that everyone has access to education and opportunity. And he inspired people like me, who felt hopeless about influencing our government.

Bob is a man who feels deeply and is just as deeply determined to make change happen. He can be moved to tears one minute and exhorting those around him to do more the next. He mentored RESULTS volunteer activists like me in how to speak to elected representatives with head and heart, and pushed us to make the world a better place—always with love and appreciation for our efforts.

Bob Dickerson (second from left) laughs with Washington Senator Patty Murray .
Bob Dickerson (second from left) laughs with Washington Senator Patty Murray during a meeting to solicit her support for global health programs. Photo: PATH/Lesley Reed.

And what success! This past December, Senator Patty Murray told more than 200 hundred people who had gathered to honor the man: “Bob never let me or my staff forget the plight of the poor at home and abroad.”

In October, Congressman Adam Smith recognized Bob on the House floor, saying, “His passionate and ever present voice for the powerless—especially children—is truly remarkable.”

Devoted to making a difference

Not surprisingly, Bob learned about PATH during a meeting with a congressional office. One of PATH’s disease experts was there, and Bob was impressed by his knowledge. “After that, PATH was always on my radar.”

He became a regular at PATH events and a donor. He recognizes that we can’t do this work alone. Ending poverty, he says, calls for the triad of government with its resources and influence, advocacy groups like RESULTS who raise awareness and apply pressure, and “successful organizations like PATH who can get smart interventions and best practices to the people who need them.”

In a class that never gives up

One Saturday after we heard that Bob had entered hospice, dozens of his fans gathered in his living room to sing. Before we left, he asked me to share a story I’d once told him, of a baby I held in Niger during one of the country’s famines—a baby who did not survive. Unbeknownst to me, that little boy was one of Bob’s inspirations to protect all children everywhere.

Turning to the youngest person in the room, a young woman he’d watch grow up, Bob said, “I can’t imagine not having you in this world.” Just as we were all beginning to cry, he reminded us to write letters to the editor, calling on the US to commit $1 billion at the upcoming pledging conference for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Being tired is no excuse, he said.

He should know. Bob now sleeps more than 16 hours a day, but he still communicates with members of Congress and even tabled at a local community college last week.

An opportunity to have no regrets

So this is what death without regrets can look like: In the time that Bob has dedicated his life to this work, child deaths have dropped by more than half, and the end of preventable child deaths is now a realistic goal.

“We look back at Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonas Salk, or the other people we read about in history books who made such a difference for people who were suffering. We have a chance to be there with them,” says Bob. “If a group of us makes a difference—that’s history-making. To me, it’s one of those opportunities you just can’t pass up.”

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