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Building the great American community

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2014 - Autumn


Vivek H. Murthy, M.D. ’03, M.B.A. ’03, recalls a night from his youth when his parents woke him and his sister and took them to a trailer park. Cancer had taken one of his father’s patients and left a widow to grieve alone. “I will never forget seeing my mother in her traditional Indian sari holding Ruth as she cried on the front steps of her home,” Murthy said. “Their life paths were so different, and yet in that moment they were family. Not the kind of family that is chosen for you, but the kind that you choose for yourself. In other words, a community. That was the moment when I decided to become a physician.”

Murthy returned to the theme of community throughout his remarks on April 22 after his swearing in as the nation’s 19th surgeon general. He observed how unlikely it was that the grandson of a rural farmer in India would become the nation’s surgeon general. “If my improbable journey to this podium demonstrates anything,” he said, “it is that it took family and friends, teachers and coaches, employers and advocates, community leaders and elected officials to get us to this place. And that is the sort of coalition we must activate and expand in order to fulfill our mission. Each of us has a part to play in building a stronger and healthier America.”

During the ceremony that also marked the change of command at the 6,700-strong U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps where he will also serve as vice admiral, Murthy, 37, was sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden. “This is an example of what makes this such an exceptional, exceptional country,” Biden said. “When the grandson of a farmer in India is asked by the president to protect the health and welfare of people in this country and around the world … pretty incredible.”

Biden could not resist some gentle ribbing. “What a group of underachievers,” he said of the Murthy family, three of whom are doctors, to laughter from the hundreds assembled in the auditorium at Ft. Myer, an Army base in Arlington, Va. Noting Murthy’s prior accomplishments, Biden added, “Nobody should do that much so young. Did you ever sleep?”

Those accomplishments began in Miami, where Murthy grew up. As a high school student, he paired his classmates with middle school students in a mentoring program. At Harvard, he trained American college students to teach students in India about HIV/AIDS, and started a community health partnership in rural India that trained young women to be health educators and basic health care providers. After medical school, Murthy launched TrialNetworks, social media platforms to enhance communication, collaboration, and efficiency in clinical trials. During the 2008 presidential campaign Murthy and colleagues founded Doctors for Obama, which morphed into Doctors for America, an organization to improve access to health care. In 2011, President Obama appointed Murthy to the National Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health. The following year Murthy served as co-chair of the health care advisory committee for Obama’s re-election campaign.

“He is eminently qualified for this job,” Biden continued. “He shares the central premise on which the president and I have staked our entire time in office—that health care is a right and not a privilege in America. We are on the right side of history. As the doc knows, there’s a lot of work to do, but as is obvious from his past, he is not afraid of hard work. We have the right person, with the right background, with the right sense of passion and commitment, at the right time. I have absolute confidence in him, and so does the president.”

Added Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, “We need a health leader with a strong voice, a global perspective, and a clear vision. That leader is Dr. Vivek Murthy.”

Once Murthy was sworn in his family—his father, Hallegere Murthy, M.D.; his mother, Myetraie, who managed his father’s practice; his sister, Rashmi, who is also a physician; and his fiancée, Alice Chen, M.D.—came to the podium to help with the final stages of donning his uniform. His mother added insignia to the epaulettes on his shirt and Chen helped him don his jacket. “I am who I am,” Murthy said, “because of my grandmother’s faith, my father’s strength, my mother’s love, my sister’s support, and my fiancee’s unyielding belief in me. I am blessed to have all of them here with me today.”

In his remarks Murthy cited the success of the Affordable Care Act, which has provided affordable health care to 16 million Americans, while acknowledging challenges ahead: increases in diabetes, heart disease, and cancer; tobacco related diseases; mental illness; heroin and prescription drug abuse; and a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases because of fear and misinformation.

“Being poor, which affects one in five children, is too great a factor in determining who is healthy and who is not. In a nation as great as ours, a nation my parents crossed oceans and borders to reach, that is unacceptable,” he said. “These realities hurt all of us. They threaten our economy, our educational system, the productivity of our workers, and even our national security. They bend the arc of the moral universe away from justice. To put it simply, health equity is a civil rights issue.”

To remedy these challenges, he said, the nation must move from a culture of treatment to one of prevention.

“Combating misinformation, shifting to a culture of prevention, and changing behaviors that are keeping us from our best health, these are the challenges that I want us to tackle. It will take a sustained commitment that will outlast my term as surgeon general. One thing is certain. I cannot do it alone. If we are to truly be a stronger and healthier country, we must bring together all parts of our society to build the great American community.

“I ask you to share your insights, your success stories and your challenges with me. Connect with me on social media and in person so we can begin a conversation. As your surgeon general, I will highlight your creative efforts to improve health and work with you to overcome challenges. And I will share my ideas and experiences with you, too. In the next four years, if we stay true to ourselves and our values, we will make great strides toward building the great American community together.”

For a full transcript of Vivek Murthy’s remarks, visit

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