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Global health experience helps Wools-Kaloustian lead response to COVID-19

Kara Wools-Kaloustian works with a team of physicians in Kenya

As division chief, Kara Wools-Kaloustian, MD, MS, relies on her many years of clinical and research experience in resource-limited settings to lead the Division of Infectious Diseases at Indiana University School of Medicine in preparing and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Health care workers in low-resourced areas have to be inventive and creative,” said Wools-Kaloustian, who is also director of research for the IU Center for Global Health. “I think those skills are going to be important in the upcoming weeks to address this virus and how it’s impacting our health care systems,” she continued.

Wools-Kaloustian’s involvement with global health at IU stretches back to the early days of AMPATH, the university’s signature partnership in Eldoret, Kenya. She has worked with underserved and marginalized populations throughout her career and been at the forefront of international research programs and infrastructure development.

Wools-Kaloustian was in the first IU School of Medicine residency class to complete rotations at Moi University and Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kenya in 1991 and the first fellow to conduct research as part of the partnership in 1992.

These early global health experiences shaped Wools-Kaloustian’s entire career. “I had been committed to providing healthcare to marginalized populations from the time that I entered medical school, but what I learned during my first residency rotation in Kenya was that I really enjoyed participating in improving health systems and creating systems where they did not previously exist,” she said.

That expertise provides the leadership needed right now as the city and state prepare for an expected surge in COVID-19 patients. “Right now I am trying to move knowledge from one place to another and create teams to prepare and respond to COVID-19,” said Wools-Kaloustian. In particular, she is drawing on her AMPATH experience in Kenya following the post-election violence in 2008. “In that perilous time, we responded by reorganizing healthcare for our HIV patients throughout western Kenya. In many ways this is a similar approach to how healthcare structures need to be adapted now to address this new disruptive global event,” she continued.

Wools-Kaloustian said key lessons from that experience lead her approach to the COVID-19 pandemic now including:

  • Information is power: it is extremely important to ensure that information flows to all stakeholders in a timely manner
  • Team work is key: Every person has a role to play and their role should be respected
  • Be adaptable: learn from the people on the front lines of delivering care and adapt strategies based on their expertise

Prior to her current leadership of COVID-19 response, much of Wools-Kaloustian’s clinical and research career focused on the HIV pandemic. Her research portfolio includes clinical trials, implementation science and epidemiology related to HIV in resource-limited settings.

“I entered medical school the year that HIV was discovered to be the virus that causes AIDS. By the time I started my clinical rotations in 1986 there was a test for HIV, but there was no treatment, and the life expectancy from diagnosis to death was about a year,” said Wools-Kaloustian. She recalls that even after it became clear that HIV could not be spread by casual contact, people were too scared to touch patients that had HIV. “Ultimately I felt that people with HIV needed a voice, someone who was willing to care for them, and touch them without fear.”

In responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wools-Kaloustian and her colleagues at IU School of Medicine and throughout the world continue the same advocacy and compassion that have characterized their careers.

Learn more about global health at IU School of Medicine.

Global Health

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Author

Debbie Ungar

Communications Manager

As communications manager for the IU Center for Global Health and AMPATH, Debbie shares stories about the university's partnerships to improve health care in Kenya and around the world. Contact her at 317-278-0827 or debungar@iu.edu.