One of the minor consolations of a tragedy is the opportunity to witness altruism and benevolence in action. Among the profound images that came out of the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti was that of Haitian-American physician Henri Ford — alongside CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta — removing a piece of concrete from a child's brain. Another image was of Ford treating a man who had been trapped and crushed under rubble for 14 days.
Even in a world of doctors possessed of a superhuman work ethic and stamina, Ford stands out. Observe: He is vice president and chief of surgery at USC-affiliated Children's Hospital Los Angeles and is vice dean and a professor at USC's Keck School of Medicine. He sits on more boards, societies and associations than you can count over a beer, and he has distinguished degrees from Princeton, Harvard, Cornell and the University of Pittsburgh.
But what really makes Ford noteworthy is his principled approach to life and to his calling. “My overarching desire in life is to make the biggest difference possible,” says the doctor, his cadence professorial, his accent tinged with the French Creole of his background. “It's not about staying in my comfort zone.”
Ford had been chief of surgery at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center but, by his own account, found those jobs a bit too comfortable. The population was overwhelmingly stable, middle- or upper-class and free of excessive medical emergencies or trauma. In short, while he could serve them, these people were not in a situation of desperation or last resort.
For a man seeking patient diversity and instances of real need, the Eastside of Los Angeles was a dream assignment. “I was coming to a city where I could really be a role model for underrepresented minorities and raise the bar for surgical care for all the children in Southern California,” he explains.
Ford's family moved to Brooklyn when he was 14, but his formative years in Haiti made a strong impact. Haitian radio at the time was full of health-related content, including a program on preventing the spread of infectious maladies. The program ended with a quiz. “I was always excited to take the quiz and make sure I got the answers correct,” he recalls. “I remember being fascinated by the transmission of contagious diseases.”
On the fate of his homeland, he is both realistic and guardedly optimistic. “You can say that Haiti has reached rock bottom and cannot go any lower unless it disappears from the horizon. Therefore, the future has to be bright. We members of the Haitian diaspora have to do something to help the country move forward.”
When Ford announced his job-change plans back in Pittsburgh, his old hospital offered a gigantic salary increase to keep him, far more than he was to earn here in L.A. He declined. “It was the challenge that was motivating me to move, not money. To whom much is given, much is required.”