Weekly Local Biography

  Joe Hyder

My grandmother used to compliment us by saying we “made her proud” when we made good grades or performed well at piano recitals, even when we tolerated unwanted attention from the crabby lady at church. Well, Joe Hyder is the kind of young man who simply makes all of us proud. Joe describes himself as an Air Force brat, the fourth of four children. His childhood memories really begin after his dad left the US Air Force and went to work teaching physics at Auburn University in Alabama, deep in the southern region of the United States. Dad was a nuclear physicist while in the military. When young Joe asked his dad where he went on business trips, he jokingly said he was out saving the Free World.

The family lived in Alabama from the time Joe was three until he was twelve years old. His memories of these formative years are delightful. The family home was near the woods and young Joe and his friends could explore, climb trees, catch snakes and build hideouts and forts there. He learned to appreciate nature and became fascinated with the behavior of animals. The family moved to Indiana when Joe was 13 so that his father could take a position at Notre Dame University, his alma mater. Joe completed high school and entered Notre Dame himself, intent on studying animal behavior.

He spent a summer in the woods of north Wisconsin working in a university-sponsored program, observing and recording the behavior of trumpeter swans. Trumpeter swans had been hunted to near extinction in the United States, and this program was part of a plan to reintroduce them into remote wooded areas in the northern parts of the country. Newly hatched swans were raised by hand using swan puppets as “parents”. This apparently didn’t produce the friendliest of cygnets, and it wasn’t uncommon for the adult swans to attack their researchers. Swans, Joe notes, can be quite badly behaved and very sneaky. The death of at least one fisherman has been attributed to a swan that attacked him from behind, toppling him from his boat and drowning him. Swan E-43 became Joe’s nemesis, and the aggressive behavior of this big bird almost caused Joe to have to learn how to swan wrestle.

At the end of his experience, Joe decided that he would rather observe people than birds, and set his sights on anthropology. His next summer volunteer program resulted in his working with homeless people in one of the worst neighborhoods of Cleveland, Ohio. Joe stayed with a volunteer host family in a very affluent neighborhood, shuttling between their mansion and four-car garage in the suburbs to the slums and homeless shelter. He developed an acute awareness of the inequities in the health care system, and moved towards medicine and health care as a career goal.

Joe graduated from college prepared to go to medical school, but continued to be interested in anthropology. Accepted by the University of California Medical School at San Diego, he began studying in a dual MD/PhD. program that specializes in graduating physician scientists. Joe completed two years of medical school, and then completed two years of epidemiological studies towards his PhD. The National Institute of Health advertised a special international exchange program, and Joe applied.

NIH had brought foreign students to the United States to study for about 20 years, but this was the first time the program was sending students from U.S. medical schools to work in developing nations. Through a series of interviews, Joe was matched with Chiang Mai University, and his horizons expanded yet again.

Most of the countries that received medical students badly need physicians and have poor or no public health infrastructure. But Thailand is different, Joe notes, because it is scientifically and ethically advanced. Its public health structure is capable, and its research teams experienced. So Joe found himself in a Johns Hopkins-based research facility at CMU that seemed to have already done every research project he proposed.

He found his niche, though, on the Thailand-Burma border, and hopes to take his experiences in international border medicine with him when he returns to California. He noted the similarities with the San Diego-Tijuana border. In each case, ethnic minorities illegally cross the border in hopes of a better life, often bringing with them the health and social problems that go with poverty.

Joe isn’t the only one in his family who is concerned about the poor and their health problems. Wife Kate, an architect, telephoned him from a Chiang Mai shopping center recently and said that she had found a homeless young man who had a bad leg. Could he come and help? So off he went and the 17 year old patient was admitted to the hospital for treatment of an open sore. The diagnosis was leprosy and an injury due to peripheral nerve damage. Joe was introduced to the services of the McKean Center, which accepted the patient for treatment on a Sunday afternoon with no charge for the services.

Joe and Kate will be returning to the United States in the next few months. Kate will resume her career as an architect, and Joe will write his dissertation on the prevention of cardiovascular disease. If all goes well, he will be Joe Hyder, Ph.D. in a year, and will then return to medical school.

During his fourth year of medical school, he hopes to return to Thailand to again work on the border. Then he will complete a residency, probably in internal medicine, and go to work in patient care and research.

Because of his research focus, he hopes to build his career in a university setting or a large teaching hospital. He’s a remarkable and modest young man. He sees nothing unusual about his choice to work in public health. He simply says, “I want to be the doctor for the person who wouldn’t have had one.” Can you see how he makes us proud?