This week on Talk Learn Connect, writer Yvonne Reddin asked Poet, Author and Professor in Epidemiology  Mona Lydon–Rochelle to share some TLC (Talk Learn Connect)

 

Could you give a summary of your career to date and what you are passionate about in your profession?

I hold a BS from the University of New Mexico, MS from Case Western Reserve University, and MPH and PhD from the University of Washington. My academic career spanned nearly 30 years, in which I researched maternal and child health, with a specific focus on the prevention and outcomes of Caesarean Section. During those years I served as a consultant to the World Health Organization (WHO), National Institute of Health, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention on both national and international research projects.
However, my mission with Médecins Sans Frontières(MSF), investigating the epidemic of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis in Abkhazian and Georgia was the most rewarding by far.
Notably, I finished my epidemiology tenure at the National Perinatal Epidemiology Centre in Cork, which I loved. I am passionate about motherhood and assuring the health of newborns.

Do you have another connection to Ireland other than as a Professor in epidemiology and high-risk obstetrics at University College Cork?

I grew up in the small coastal town of Scituate, Massachusetts—coined the Irish Riviera because almost everyone was an Irish émigré or first-generation offspring. As children we were steeped in Irish songs, fairy tales, food and superstitions. We still have family in Cork and while at UCC, they were a tremendous support. It is more than sentimentality, I am proud of my Irish ancestry, family name and the remarkable poetic and Christian traditions. Notably, when missioned by Médecins Sans Frontières(MSF) out of the New York City office, MSF requested that I obtain Irish Citizenship (which I did) because placement of Irish Citizens in volatile countries was more straightforward than placing Americans!

You are also a poet.  This seems like a diverse career change or did it feel like a more natural path to progress to? Tell us what you like to write about in your poems.

Transitioning from epidemiology to poetry was somewhat seamless—the rigours of research, the discipline of scientific writing (publish or perish) and the ability to accept rejection—all are required in being a good poet. I owe a special debt to Paul FittererSJ, a Pacific Northwest Jesuit, who encouraged me to write poetry despite the seeming insanity of giving up tenure and a great salary!
Also, I believe I was born with a natural inclination toward the poetic-my father, James Kelleher Lydon, who passed when I was only one year old was a solicitor and poet. I read his tattered poems repeatedly.

“Because of COVID, performances and readings have all been cancelled but interviews such as yours and Jeremy Murphy’s have promoted book sales thankfully”

As a contemporary poet-epidemiologist-midwife, I am attracted to the grandeur of the sea, the innocence of childhood, the beauty of birth and the power of testimony. Like epidemiology, I’m concerned with truth and experiences that are deepest and truest in life.
In my most recent book On the Brink of the Sea, I write about love in our time of constant war and rising hate. It crosses over neat American borders into 21st-century wars and epidemics and plumbs a harsh (and humorous) childhood
Given my own childhood poverty as well as my work with MSF and Catholic Relief Services, all author royalties are donated to these two stellar humanitarian aid organizations.
A number of the poems were written while I was living in Cork, Ireland and travelling the countryside for work.

Your expertise is in epidemiology, can I ask what your thoughts are on how the pandemic has been handled in America currently?

If you’ll forgive me, I hope to turn the question upside down. I would like to speak about America and Europe’s actions regarding the COVID pandemic in Africa. How have we as affluent countries dealt with COVID in Africa?
So far Africa has been the continent least affected by Covid-19, however, now it’s spreading beyond capital cities and lack of tests and other supplies are hampering responses.

One of the most meaningful projects for me was WHO’s development of survey tools to assess maternal and infant health in eight African countries”

Importantly, epidemiologists warn of the catastrophic shortage of health care professionals and the drastic reduction of medical supplies because of border closures, price increases and restrictions on exports imposed during the pandemic.
The good news is aid organizations such as MSF Ireland are at the forefront of intervening in Africa and taking action.

Can you share any words of wisdom that helped you in your successful career?

A love of learning and desire for the common good inspired my career. My words of wisdom? Avoid pessimism as it lacks vision. Choose hope as it sets ones heart on fire. And do not go into deep debt! Apply for internships, residencies, fellowships—think out of the box.  Simply be the best that you can be.
Author royalties for the book are donated to MSF and Catholic Relief Services, which is critical in this time of COVID. Please contact Mona Lydon-Rochelle at minot@uw.edu if you have any questions. On the Brink of the Sea can be purchased through Amazon UK.