Sir William Osler famously observed: “He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all.”
That’s a sentiment emphatically endorsed by Gretchen L. Birbeck (HS, internal medicine, neurology ’98; fellow, neurology, 2004–05). She echoed Osler in a 2014 article, “Careers in Global Neurology,” published in Annals of Neurology:
“One simply cannot develop a career in global neurology without some time working and living abroad. Trying to do so is like trying to complete a medical degree having read all the books but never having examined a patient.”
Now a neurology professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Birbeck spends from six months to a year in sub-Saharan Africa — treating patients, teaching caregivers and promoting advanced neurological care.
In 1994, toward the end of her time at the University of Chicago medical school, Birbeck took a five-month elective in rural Zambia. She says she became “hooked” on treating patients in poorly served communities there. Ever since, she has provided clinical care and conducted research in Zambia, where she is director of the Chikankata Epilepsy Care Team. Her research also includes the pathophysiology and determinants of outcomes of pediatric cerebral malaria in Zambia and Malawi.
Her Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center fellowship mentor, neurologist Peter W. Kaplan, says Birbeck “is one of the most enthusiastic researchers I have met.” She studied electroencephalography with him and also collaborated on projects involving children with malaria who suffered seizures. The two continue to collaborate, he says.The Johns Hopkins University Alumni Association presented Birbeck with its 2019 Global Achievement Award, praising her “unparalleled” efforts as “a true pioneer in the field of global neurology.”