The day Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, December 27, 2007, Champlain College instructor Tim Brookes was in Pakistan. But he didn’t go there to report on the chaos; he was in Karachi, at Aga Khan University, teaching public health faculty and students how to write and get published. It was one of three such workshops he led in Pakistan and Bangladesh on that trip. Why? Because developing countries desperately need to get the word out about their health epidemics. “In Karachi, 50 percent of middle-class children have intestinal parasites,” Brookes offers by way of example. “The scale is horrific.”
Political and economic troubles often are, too. But a major obstacle to addressing global health disasters turns out to be a fairly straightforward one: “The one thing that’s really missing in public health education is, nobody ever taught them how to write,” Brookes says.
Enter Writers Without Borders. Brookes and Dr. Omar A. Khan of the University of Vermont College of Medicine have created that initiative — borrowing its moniker from the international volunteer organization Doctors Without Borders — in order to teach those writing skills to public health professionals in countries that need them. Brookes begins, he says, with a “combination of storytelling and journalism.” And, he adds, “Being a middle man to help people get published [in journals and magazines] is certainly one of our aims.
“Medical writers from publications like The New York Times read those journals and look for stories,” Brookes points out. “If the people doing the important work can’t get their stories in established journals, they can’t attract funding, get professional respect or advancement, even though they’re the ones often literally wading through the shit.”
Brookes credits Khan with identifying the need for writing instruction in the first place. The doctor, a UVM grad, is a clinical assistant professor of family medicine and founder of the school’s Global Health program; he plays several roles in the American Public Health Association (APHA), notably working on its publications. Brookes not only teaches but heads the professional writing program at Champlain and maintains an impressive freelance writing schedule on the side. His resumé includes several health-related books — the first, Catching My Breath, was a riveting account of his life as an asthmatic.
In 2006, Brookes and Khan co-authored The End of Polio? Behind the Scenes of the Campaign to Vaccinate Every Child on the Planet, which was published by APHA. But the pair’s association began on a different playing field: Brookes, an Englishman, and Khan, a native of Pakistan, both love cricket. “I ran the Chittenden County Cricket Club for about 10 years,” Brookes says, “and Omar was one of the people who wandered into its very weak gravity.”
Neither gentleman has much time to storm the wickets these days. They’re too busy trying to change the world, one public-health story at a time. For more info, visit www.writerswithoutborders.org.