In his early years, Steve Wiersma didn’t stray very far from his native Grand Rapids. He also went to his local college, Calvin, with the intent to go into one of the sciences.
But starting at Calvin, his interests and his work went very global.
“Calvin gave me a tremendous exposure to the world and all that’s possible,” he said. “There were incredible profs, and fellow students were stimulating. It all started a passion in me to be where the problems were the most intense.”
He shifted into the pre-med program and sought out challenging experiences at Calvin and at Wayne State University’s medical school.
“I remember a three-month surgical tour in the Congo for Africa Inland Mission, doing surgery no student had any business doing,” he recalled. “It struck me that when the missionary surgeon would go on furlough, the work would stop whereas the guy in public health was always training and empowering.”
The experience reminded him of classes at Calvin in sustainability, about how one can sustain efforts long-term.
This combination of medicine and public health in places of greatest need became Wiersma’s calling.
His medical residency was financed by the Air Force, so when he graduated his first work was as a flight surgeon, “keeping people healthy.” He served in the First Gulf War and in northern Turkey.
Upon his return to the U.S., Wiersma added a public health degree from Johns Hopkins University to prepare for the calling he continued to feel strongly.
Equipped to serve, Wiersma launched into the world—with impressive energy.
He worked for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, and then spent time under the WHO’s auspices in Zambia on HIV child survival programs. Then, it was USAID’s turn to use his expertise—in Eritrea dealing with nutrition issues.
Coming back to the U.S., Wiersma worked for the State of Florida as an epidemiologist and wrestled with two difficult health problems while there: the anthrax scare after 9/11 and the West Nile Virus.
“That time in Florida embodied a lot of crisis management,” he said.
Next, he took a position at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to work for the WHO on infant immunization with a focus on hepatitis B, which developed into a global hepatitis program. Then, it was Tanzania, training locals to be “disease detectives” in a pro-active health effort.
Now, he finds himself in Uganda, to expand a CDC global disease prevention program centered on HIV/AIDS, but also encompassing Ebola, malaria and other chronic health issues.
“In a way my path is a kind of Forrest Gump story,” he said. “I’ve never had a typical job. And I’m a job jumper, finding opportunities and answering God’s call in a variety of settings.”
Wiersma is excited about the progress in disease prevention and health promotion in Uganda and throughout Africa.
“I think Uganda is influencing me rather than me influencing Uganda,” he said. “There are a lot of issues of accountability that’s frustrating, but we are beginning to work as a very competent team. I never imagined an African country getting rid of HIV, but I see hope in the distance.”
Treating HIV as one would an outbreak, Wiersma’s team has come far in the identification of persons with the disease and the dispersal of drugs, demonstrating that the disease can be suppressed.
“It’s epidemiology, a numbers game,” he said. “The more people who are treated, the closer you can come to a tipping point.”
It is this kind of impact in the field—where the problems are the most intense—that motivates Wiersma.
“I keep talking about the field in my job, that I want to get back to the field,” he said. “Because that’s when you are really out there sitting by the mother who is grieving or the child who is coughing.”
He is driven by what he calls the “global burden of disease”—places in the world where hope seems dim and illnesses seem insurmountable.
The recent global effort against the Ebola outbreak is, for him, another demonstration that success can be achieved. Wiersma calls that episode one of “optimism for the continent;” he was energized by the African response to the challenge.
And he intends to be part of the effort, as long as he is able.
“There are so many people out there who are sick that don’t have anyone who cares about them or anyone who has anything meaningful to offer them,” said Wiersma. “I just want to be part of the team that has something to offer them.”