When UC San Francisco School of Nursing’s Sally Rankin first visited Malawi in 2000, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was tearing through sub-Saharan Africa. As she moved around the country with her husband’s nascent nonprofit organization – the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance, or GAIA – people with the disease were hiding in back rooms, fearful of being seen in public. Children who weren’t infected were becoming orphans at astonishing rates.
In 2001, Ellen Schell (BS ’86, MS ’89, PhD ’94) was working as a project director at the School on two grants having to do with older adults, but the accounts pouring out of Africa recalled her time as a medical-surgical nurse treating a young AIDS patient in San Francisco during the early days of the epidemic. When Rankin told Schell GAIA was looking for someone to become its first employee, Schell jumped at the opportunity. Today, she is international programs director for GAIA.
After spending the first five years of her career as a pediatric nurse at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, Melanie Perera volunteered for a British nongovernmental organization (NGO) and, in 2008, wound up training nurses in one of Malawi’s most isolated rural areas. She loved the work, but when she found herself assuming some of the roles and responsibilities of an advanced practice nurse in the US, Perera decided to credential herself, enrolling in the School’s pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP) program.
There she met Rankin, who by then was associate dean for Global Health and International Programs and, in collaboration with GAIA, had begun administering a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) grant to strengthen nursing education in Malawi. When Perera finished her NP program in 2012, Rankin offered her the job of overseeing the grant in-country. “I had gone back to school to be an NP, but having an opportunity to impact the nursing at a national level across Malawi was too exciting to pass up,” says Perera.
The intertwined careers of these three women and the powerful draw of GAIA’s mission exemplify the 13-year relationship between the School and GAIA. Through formal and informal partnerships, the two organizations have not only made an enormous contribution to improving the lives and health of many in Malawi, but also serve as a model for a new generation of global health partnerships at the School.