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brett heimlich, malawi, 2014-2015
Fulbright Scholar Brett Heimlich

Fulbright Year: 2014-2015
Country: Malawi
Proposal Type: Research
Proposal Title: Introducing Diagnostic Methods for Sickle Cell Disease in Malawi
UGA Undergraduate Major: Biology, 2009
Hometown: Alpharetta, Georgia

Although sickle cell disease has in recent decades moved from the front page of the world’s consciousness, the inherited red blood cell disorder continues to afflict millions of people around the world, including some 100,000 Americans each year. The disease is particularly prevalent in Africa, where an estimated 400,000 children are born each year with sickle cell.

Brett Heimlich, who finished his PhD work on the chronic renal complications of sickle cell disease in May of 2014, will take a year off from his pursuit of an MD/PhD at the Medical College of Georgia to team with physicians from Kamuzu Central Hospital in Malawi’s capital city of Lilongwe to address gaps in sickle cell diagnosis and treatment. Through his work he also hopes to establish the foundation for future sickle cell research in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to his research efforts, Brett plans to partner with KCH pediatricians to create a community education program for sickle cell disease. The program will be modeled after a successful diabetes education program he helped develop in Harrisburg, a low-income neighborhood in Augusta. The awareness program will consist of two tiers – the first geared toward educating sickle cell disease patients and family members about proper disease care, and the second aimed at promoting general awareness of sickle cell among the general population.

In addition to serving as an American Medical Association delegate since 2009 and receiving the American Medical Association Foundation Excellence in Medical Leadership Award in 2013, Brett was the trustee and chairman of the Medical Association of Georgia’s Student Section, a Georgia Regents University Lumen Society ambassador, and a member of the Harrisburg Family Health Care Board.

Brett has also been involved in study, intern, work, and volunteer programs in Uruguay, Antarctica, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Panama, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, and Russia.

After his Fulbright year, Brett will return to Augusta to complete the MD portion of his degree program. Brett plans to pursue a residency in hematology/oncology, where he can see patients and maintain a significant research focus.

“My goal is to one day lead a group of investigators, guiding translational research, in an effort to address human disease while maintaining a strong commitment to my community through clinical practice.”

Brett’s planned community engagement in Lilongwe and his previous experiences in Harrisburg spawned a desire to treat patients while continuing extensive research.

“My experiences in my community have confirmed the transformative power of medicine when leveraged as a vehicle for meaningful social change,” he says. “While working at UNC Project-Malawi, I will be able to engage the community and simultaneously pursue my passion for medicine and research through the formation of a sickle cell surveillance and treatment network.

“What began as a somewhat apprehensive move to Harrisburg, developed into relationships, initiatives, and programs that have improved the quality of life for people there and these experiences have undoubtedly proven to be the most worthwhile endeavors of my own life. I hope to leave a similar legacy as a result of my time in Malawi as a Fulbright Fellow and in my career as a physician-scientist.”

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