Professor’s passion for global health began early

Immigrants and refugees from 130 countries come to the center for help.

On a normal day, the Health Partners Center for International Health in St. Paul resembles the United Nations.

Immigrants and refugees from 130 countries come to the center for help navigating the often confusing U.S. health care system.

Dr. Patricia Walker, the center’s director and University medical professor, is featured in a recently released book by St. Paul author Biloine W. Young called “My Heart It Is Delicious,” which tells the center’s story.

Walker’s passion for global health began at a young age. She was born in Taiwan and lived in Thailand until she was 11, and said what she witnessed there drove her to pursue medicine.

“Growing up and seeing so much obvious poverty and illness on the streets of Bangkok made me very interested in medicine,” Walker said. “I knew from eighth grade I wanted to be a doctor.”

As a third-year medical student at the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Walker volunteered to be part of a medical team at the Thai-Cambodian border in 1979.

There she met Neal Holtan, co-founder of the Health Partners Center for International Health, who later asked her to join his clinic in Minnesota.

“(Holtan) kept bugging me saying, ‘Hey, Pat, we’ve got this clinic that just does immigrant health,’ ” Walker said. “Neal finally convinced me to join him.”

Walker, who speaks English, Thai, Lao and Cambodian, has been the director at the center since 1988. She sees around 18 to 20 patients a day, she said.

Most of the patients don’t speak English and use an interpreter. Sometimes it can be difficult to break the cultural barrier, but Walker said she enjoys the challenge.

“I think I have the best job in the Twin Cities,” Walker said. “I’m learning from my patients every day.”

Steve Miles, a professor of bioethics and one of Walker’s colleagues, was also on the medical team at the Cambodian border.

“She’s managed to create this huge clinical system that’s capable of providing care to refugee population that is here,” Miles said. “That’s really special.”

Not only is she good at coordinating the clinic, she is also an “amazing doctor,” internal medicine resident Jose Debes said. Debes works with Walker at the center.

“She’s showed the importance of treating your patients kindly,” Debes said. “Her patients love her. She always smiling and being very kind to them.”

On top of her work at the center, Walker is also the director of the Global Health Pathway – a program in the University’s Department of Medicine that sends medical school residents around the world to learn about treating patients from different cultures. Fifty percent of medical students and residents express an interest in global health, she said.

Uganda, Thailand and India are just a few places medical residents can practice. Fourth-year resident Kara Sullivan went to Uganda and Thailand with the program.

“It’s actually an interesting track,” Sullivan said. “You meet doctors from other countries taking the class, and that was an interesting part.”

The experience overseas can be eye-opening. Debes spent time in Arusha, Tanzania, this past December. There he did rounds in a hospital and also taught remote communities in Africa about medicine.

But Debes’ admiration for Walker isn’t limited to him alone, as he noticed at the reception for the book’s release.

“The person introducing her said that ‘if we got to clone human beings, she would be one of the people to clone right away,’ ” Debes said.