Rodrigue Mortel, MD, an upright and outstanding colleague.
By Reynald Altéma, MD
“My goal is to nurture young minds, give them a thorough education and turn them into upright and outstanding citizens who respect their brothers and sisters, love their country and above all have a deep faith in God,” is a quote not from the book of utopia but the firm belief of a colleague who retired from his lifelong career as a stellar clinician, teacher and researcher to delve into the perilous terrain of providing first rate schooling to wretched children in the motherland. This colleague is none other than Rodrigue Mortel, MD, the beneficiary of universal brotherly adulation for his accomplishments as demonstrated recently when the word spread like wildfire that he was awarded an Honorary alumnus diploma by Penn State University, joining an exclusive club of only a handful of faculty members of the Penn State University School of Medicine to have been picked by the President and the Trustees of the University of Penn State for such accretion to a step closer to empyrean echelon of academia.
Far too often we tend to heap praise on a fellow citizen as a posthumous gesture and paying scant attention during the person’s lifetime. This is an unfortunate cultural trait but a habit that needs to be broken. It is routine in North America to honor an individual who has accumulated a lasting legacy; this type of recognition has all the salutary effect of positive feedback, fostering further goodwill and encouraging the individual to continue for society’s benefit. This evaluation is based on correspondence, conversations with our friend.
Rodrigue Mortel, MD, is an embodiment of a Horatio Alger life story (incidentally he was one of ten recipients of such an award in 1985. This is a meritorious award to someone with a remarkable rags-to-riches epic), not a fairy tale but the result of an ethos of hard work and a creed of deep religiosity, a surprising but not uncommon combination for someone steeped in the life sciences. Such paradox is indeed the type of delicate path that we, humans, walk on in our quotidian endeavors. If his latest humanitarian work strikes as peculiar, then it must pique our curiosity to find out about the persona behind the name.
Rodrigue Mortel, MD was born in St Marc; in Rodrigue’s own words, “of an illiterate and restavek mother” who spent every penny she owned to make him obtain an education. And he states further “my mother remains nonetheless throughout life my model of hard work, determination, honesty and integrity.” This is seismic in proportion. Normally an accomplished Haitian professional would be loathe to reveal his humble origin and most certainly would not be so forthright to admit publically to the fact of one’s mother as being a restavek, one of the stains of our society that broke free from bondage only to create another type, lasting to this day and primarily subjugating children. This already speaks volume of the man’s moral fiber… But an education he did obtain despite the inauspicious beginning.
Like a finger poking the eye of the bearer of the notion that poverty and scholastic excellence are incompatible, his life experience is proof of the contrary. His threadbare environment was a stimulus for him to see a better tomorrow; early on he chose the path of intellectual enrichment, more difficult for certain, but more satisfying for its mastery equips one with the rigor of discipline, the wisdom of patience and the allure of integrity. Again he had his mom as a role model, albeit poor and downtrodden.
He went through school with brio and when he finished medical school at a time in our history notorious for the infamy of a vile dictator, in 1963, he thought it better to seek shelter elsewhere. He had a brief stint in Canada for one year and then emigrated to the US where he has been living since. He did his postgraduate training at Hahneman Medical College and a fellowship at the prestigious Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in the nascent field of Gyn-Oncology. From there he went on to Penn State School of Medicine where he started the Section of Gyn-Oncology and on to a fast track up the ladder of academic appointment. In just five years, he became a full professor. Over the years, he has collected a string of awards and accolades for his superlative dexterity as a surgeon, his renowned talent for teaching and his flair for doing bench work in the lab in the US as well as in France. In fact it is a stunning fact that having had no prior exposure to lab work back home, he self-taught and excelled in it. He did some training in cancer research at the Université de Paris and became a fellow of La Ligue Nationale Française Contre le Cancer as well as Professeur at La Fondation de France.
Rodrigue claims that his single and greatest academic accomplishment was the discovery through animal model of the benefit of the sequential administration of Tamoxifen and Progestins to women with advanced endometrial cancer. Such a discovery was so seminal that it landed him the chair of the Ob-Gyn Department at Penn State, a position he held for thirteen years. His next step up the ladder was the position of Associate Dean until his retirement.
The swath that he cut in academic circles is wide and deep. As part of a university faculty, one is expected to publish and Rodrigue penned over 130 articles to his name. The bar he upheld was very high indeed. As gregarious as he can be, he is a very meticulous man, rigid on principles and suffering no fools. He held others to the same high standards he set out for himself. His advice on health matters was sought by decision makers in Congress, as a Robert Wood Johnson Health policy Fellow at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He was a member of the advisory board of the National Cancer Institute. Heady stuff indeed. Among the many honors bestowed on him, his eponymous society could be considered the highest form of flattery. Penn State has the “Mortel Society”, one of four such creations. His was based on Rodrigue’s scholarship that contributed to furtherance of high academic environment. Granted that high academic standards remain a sine qua non for such an honor one can’t help but suspect the final decision was influenced by his humility. A bright intellect and humility may be seen as an oxymoronic concept in some minds perhaps, but it remains a construct worthwhile aspiring to.
Had he chosen after a distinguished career of intense pressure to spend his last days relaxing, he still would have been applauded for all the precedents he established as being the first-of in so many categories. Yet with the same zeal he exhibited for being a trailblazer in treatment of cancer in women, he has entered into a dual dedication: deaconship and support of education both in Haiti, primarily, as well as his old stomping ground, Penn State. As far as the choice of deaconship, he readily volunteers the fact that faith is extremely important to him. Whether one shares his belief or not, there is no mistaking the paradigm that he practices what he preaches. His infatuation with support for education is genuine and he spares no effort or resources, including his personal savings, for this devotion. Far from being a tycoon, he yet finds the means to donate 2 endowed chairs to Penn State under his and his wife’s name.
So what exactly is his involvement in education in Haiti? He created a US-based charitable foundation, The Mortel Family Charitable Foundation, for the sole purpose of underwriting this project and within a decade of existence, he has singlehandedly created a network of schools mostly in St Marc but also in Gonaïves serving at least 1200 schoolchildren and based on a very interesting concept: “shared participation.” No tuition is charged but parents are expected to donate in-kind contributions, creating the incentive of a family’s vested interest for the project’s welfare and survival and above all a communal sense, heightened by the security, satisfaction of participation in a socially relevant undertaking. Just as important is the notion that the only way to be part of the system is from the ground. In practical terms, it means students are admitted only at the level of kindergarten. The rationale for such a policy is that it allows for a more structured environment and the notion of school as an extended family where values are instilled from the very beginning. Rodrigue makes no bones about his lofty goals, “Our goal is to have these groups we are educating take over the direction of the country and help in restoring dignity to the poor Haitians and eliminate corruption in the government.” However, and this is very impressive, it should come as no surprise that the schools also double as learning centers against illiteracy for adults.
The schools are under the control of religious organizations. The curriculum is rigid-one would not dare expect otherwise from their creator–and in the mold of traditional religious schools (“les écoles congréganistes” of our youth), catechism plays a central role. Evangelical ideologues in America have given a bad name to faith-based altruism, but considering that Haïti has the dubious distinction of forming me-first citizens who turn a blind eye to the glaring lack of meticulous urban planning and infrastructure building but keep a keen focus on myriad ways to pilfer public funds, a person whose stated goal is to form upright and outstanding citizens can’t be but an upright and outstanding person himself. One can imagine that he likes the reflection he sees in the mirror…
The cost of educating a child for one year is a paltry sum of $600 a year. The foundation relies on voluntary contributions for its philanthropic activities and so far the overwhelming majority of sponsors is made up of foreigners. However any interested party can contribute. The address is: P.O. Box 405, Hershey, PA, 17033.
As for his legacy, “I want it to be a living legacy, that of leaving a piece of myself in everyone I encounter in my journey.” But just as importantly for his life’s frontispiece he would say, “I always look for opportunities, not security. I look also for big problems because they often disguise opportunities.”
As for my personal take on the man, anybody involved in forming minds for the benefit of society is a hero because it is the single most important investment in one’s life. A mind is too important to go to waste.