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Georgina Hartzell

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Georgina Hartzell looks like any Berkeley grad with a fresh diploma in hand—jeans, t-shirt, scarf, flats. But there’s a brightness in her eye, having received acceptance letters from three medical schools, and when she opens her mouth, it is clear that Hartzell made up her mind long ago that she wasn’t going to be just any doctor.

Hartzell received her bachelor’s degree in Nutritional Sciences in May of 2009. Her passion for nutrition and medicine started early. As a teen, Hartzell volunteered at Marin General Hospital and got her first taste of the challenges of caring for underserved populations. While at Berkeley she had a job with Kaiser Permanente’s Division of Research, exploring why and how women survive breast cancer, as her mother has. By the time she was interviewing for medical school, she’d health issues for young and old, and used her fluent Spanish to translate between American doctors and Honduran villagers.

As a result of these experiences, Hartzell believes there is much more to practicing medicine than prescribing drugs. She notices the lack of playgrounds in neighborhoods with more than an average share of overweight children. She sees the confusion in the eyes of emergency room patients receiving life-changing diagnoses via telephone translation services. She worries about the marginalization of patients who live in polluted neighborhoods. “For a long time it’s been all about ‘OK you’re sick, take this and get better.’ But where a person lives, what they eat, and who cares for them also influences their health. I’m interested in seeing a patient as a whole,” Hartzell says.

Some of Hartzell’s ideas about doctoring evolved during her five years of research work for Kaiser. In the breast cancer study, she helped collect data on over 2,000 survivors, and conducted nutrition and health status interviews. Sifting through medical records to abstract information for data points and check boxes, she struggled with the anonymity of patient ID numbers versus the human suffering written on the pages. “I like to put a face on data, to work with real people, but I understand the bigger, more important, things science can do to prevent and treat cancer.”

Many interviewees asked Hartzell about the overall research results. She told them about the suite of papers linking alcohol and breast cancer recurrence, and those finding more cancer in women who have children after they’re 30. She also shared findings that the weight gain produced by some anti-cancer drugs can actually be protective against recurrence—findings published in an August 2008 paper she coauthored in Cancer Causes and Control.

Hartzell entered an entirely different realm of research when she began working on type 2 diabetes, once referred to as adult onset diabetes. Though historically limited to older, more affluent patients, the disease is now on the rise among young children. Often these kids come from African American and Hispanic communities. While working on an Oakland research project with at-risk nine-year-olds, Hartzell says she was disconcerted to see “the jump of the disease across intersections of race, age, and income.”

The Oakland project, run by UC Berkeley Professor of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology Sharon Fleming, focused on nine- to twelve-year-old overweight kids. With the help of Berkeley students like Hartzell, the project provided cooking lessons, self-esteem building exercises, sports, and games at a local YMCA. The goal was to change lifestyles and eating habits before the children developed diabetes. “Until then, I wasn’t really aware of the connection between type 2 diabetes and poverty. If you go to some of these neighborhoods, it’s all fast food, and maybe a 7-Eleven, so how are they going to get healthy foods?” asks Hartzell.

Hartzell has also traveled to Honduras with Global Medical Brigades—a university-level version of Doctors Without Borders. Her brigade included two doctors and about 20 Berkeley students. Partnered with a local doctor and pharmacist, they traveled from village to village, setting up in schools and clinics and providing advice and supplies.

The Brigades recruited Hartzell because she spoke Spanish—a skill she had carefully cultivated to one day better serve California’s current population. While communicating medical woes between doctor and patient in Honduras, Hartzell got a unique taste of what it’s really like to practice medicine. She also came home with the knowledge that the Americans she’ll be seeing in her future waiting room won’t be so different from the Hondurans she cared for: they all have the same aches and pains and family troubles. “Whether you’re in the nicest clinic in Beverly Hills or you’re in a rural traveling clinic in Honduras with no plumbing, you need to help the patient feel comfortable with the whole process,” she says.

Once she finishes medical school, Hartzell dreams of launching a community clinic for type 2 diabetes in a Spanish-speaking corner of a California city. She imagines a place that not only provides critical medical care, but also nutrition and physical activity classes, and a garden full of vegetables. “Maybe I can help change the field of medicine,” she says. “If you really want to make a difference, you have to have a tough skin, you have to put yourself out there.”

-Ariel Rubissow-Okamoto

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