For more than a decade, Yolaine Civil, M.D., had been helping patients and families throughout the state through her role with the Ambulatory Pediatric Clinic at Michigan Medicine.

But in 2010 — following a transformative experience volunteering in Haiti after a devastating earthquake struck the nation — her ambitions grew.

“While I had always had a deep affection toward helping people in need, including lower income individuals, single-parent households and immigrant families from all over the globe, I knew that it was time to do more after my life-changing volunteer experience,” said Civil, who decided to leave her position at Michigan Medicine and pursue a role with Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

From 2012-14, Civil completed four missions with MSF, working in both west and central Africa to improve the lives of neonatal patients and their mothers.

Addressing health disparities at home

Civil returned to Michigan Medicine in 2015, with the goal of addressing health inequities in the area through clinical duties at the Ypsilanti Health Center and her role as a clinical instructor in the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases.

“As a clinical instructor, one of my primary goals has always been to foster diversity, equity and inclusion at Michigan Medicine through scholarship, mentorship and teaching,” said Civil. That ambition fits perfectly with the mission of the Office for Health Equity and Inclusion (OHEI), which has provided Civil with a number of volunteering opportunities with which she can make an impact.

“I have served as a volunteer faculty mentor with programs such as the Michigan Health Summer Undergraduate Research (MHSURA) program and their Career Development Academy (CDA),” Civil said. “This allows me to offer students meaningful assistance as they pursue careers in the health sciences.”

But her dream always remained to make a difference in Africa, through research and health care initiatives.

Expanding her work

In 2017, Civil decided to take the next step in pursuing her dream of spearheading a global health initiative in Africa by applying for a Diversity Fund grant through OHEI.

The Diversity Fund aims to increase faculty diversity at Michigan Medicine and support the development of clinical, educational and research-based programs that elevate diversity, equity and inclusion. The standard award is $20,000 a year for three years and can be used for recruitment as loan repayment or for research and scholarly activity.

Civil received a grant — and is using it to fund a vital research project in Ghana.

“The primary goal of my project is to establish a system for providing routine, outpatient preventative care visits for premature and low birth weight infants at more frequent levels,” Civil said. “Severe malnutrition is a significant underlying cause of death in hospitalized preterm infants in low-resource countries. Therefore, this project is a cost-effective way to obtain vital information that can be used to improve neonatal care by providing early parent education and reinforcement of breastfeeding, while also keeping track of infant growth on a regular basis.”

Through the Diversity Fund, Civil is able to spend up to three weeks per year in Kumasi, Ghana over the three-year course of the project — while still performing her everyday tasks at Michigan Medicine. And her work is gaining acclaim from across the academic spectrum — just last month, Civil was awarded a 2018-19 Fulbright U.S. Scholar grant, allowing for even more growth within her work.

“The path to achieving the Fulbright Scholar grant was extremely challenging — it took a lot of prayer, patience, determination and perseverance to finally arrive at this point,” said Civil. “Although my background was primarily clinical when I first conceived of the idea for this project, I was successfully able to translate my clinical goals into scholarly activity to help others.

“Ultimately, we are working to defeat health inequities, so this mission has been incredibly meaningful and I’m excited to see where it goes. I know that I’m on the right path.”

This story was originally published by the University of Michigan Medical School