Helping Out: Giving was a life lesson learned from mom
Chairs the board of Health Volunteers Overseas and was former assistant surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service.
Charitable giving highlights: Gives financially to the Damon Runyan Cancer Research Foundation, Johns Hopkins University and Health Volunteers Overseas.
Personal: Lives in Silver Spring.
I come from a family of volunteers. My mother was an avid volunteer and I guess I fell in her footsteps. She had seven children and she never stopped giving. On Saturdays, she would take us to a nursing home to help out. She was my incentive to give.
I'm a nurse. I've always felt it was important to not only have a job, but to give back. I feel like if you have, you should give. It helps make your life fuller.
My career has led me to many foreign countries. That's when I got hooked on what we here in the States can offer when countries are in need. As chief nurse at the Public Health Service, I went on several assignments: Sudan during the famine, Romania to deal with the orphanage situation and Rwanda after the genocide to help them restore health services.
My first assignment was to Turkey. The villages in Turkey didn't have any health services. I offered to start community health centers in three villages. They gave us a van and every week we went to the villages to help teach them basic health principles. It was a great experience.
Then I got involved with Health Volunteers Overseas, a network of health-care professionals, organizations, corporations and donors that administers health education in developing countries. I was asked to go to Uganda to establish a program there for nursing education.
I went to Rwanda six weeks after the genocide. I helped teach women in the neighboring country how to care for 50,000 orphans whose parents had either died from the genocide or cholera.
There were 7 million people in Rwanda, and they counted eight doctors and 32 nurses in the country. They had no public health structures because of the genocide. I thought of the idea to create 500 community workers to help with the three main illnesses during that time: diarrhea, malaria and respiratory infection.
That evolved into various nursing schools.
I remember I went back to visit, the first graduating class had taken bed sheets and painted, "thank you Mrs. Plotnick" as if I had done something. I didn't. They did.
-- Interview with Vanessa Mizell