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Christy Wistar EMP-56: Building labs in Tanzania to fight HIV/AIDS

By Rachel Farrell

When Abbott Fund offered Christy Wistar EMP-56 the position of vice president in 2006, the job came with a caveat: She had to move to Tanzania.

Wistar liked the idea at first, especially since the move would benefit her husband, Tom Wistar, who as director of Abbott's anti-retroviral drugs for Africa flew to Tanzania periodically to help broaden access to HIV therapeutics. But her feelings changed when she started looking for a home in Dar es Salaam, the nation's largest city and the site of Abbott Fund's first office outside the U.S.

"Our real-estate agent took us to these places that were dirty, with mold on the wall and a hot plate instead of a kitchen," says Wistar, a 2004 graduate of the Kellogg School's Executive MBA Program. "And I thought, 'I can't live like this.' I started questioning whether this was something that I could do."

Finding a house that was "liveable," she says, helped ease her concerns. But more significantly, Wistar discovered how important her work at Abbott Fund, the philanthropic foundation established by global healthcare company Abbott, was to the Tanzanian people.

According to Tanzania's Ministry of Health, more than 2 million Tanzanians are living with HIV, but only one doctor is available for every 25,000 to 30,000 residents. Transportation options are sparse in the country's many rural areas, making it difficult for residents to travel to healthcare facilities, especially if they are ill. As a result, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among adults ages 15 to 59, and more than 150,000 children living with the disease are without proper treatment and care, according to Abbott Fund.

Wistar has developed several initiatives to address this epidemic. Along with overseeing the planning of the country's first pediatric HIV/AIDS clinic in the Mbeya region (which borders Malawi), she is directing the Regional Laboratory Modernization Project, which aims to build or modernize 23 regional-level hospital laboratories by 2010. The first four, including the laboratory at Amana Regional Hospital, were completed in 2008. The labs are equipped with modern technology to improve accuracy in the hospitals' record-keeping systems and reduce the time it takes for patients to see a doctor, take an HIV test, get lab results and receive treatment.

Before opening the Dar es Salaam office in 2007, Abbott Fund worked remotely with the government of Tanzania from its headquarters in Lake County, Ill. Now that Wistar works on-site, she meets frequently with Tanzania's minister of health and chief medical officer to ensure that her plans align with the country's needs. She also collaborates with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the United States Agency for International Development to improve response on the ground. Visiting construction sites allows Wistar to check on the progress of the laboratories, meet with the CEOs of the hospitals, and troubleshoot problems.

"I see the issues first-hand," says Wistar, who has worked for Abbott since 1984 in roles such as senior project manager, director of sales and vice president of U.S. marketing. "I'm able to go deeper into problems and ask questions, [which helps me] to formulate solutions."

Wistar began reviewing MBA programs in 2002 after Abbott recommended her for the position of director of investor relations, pending her enrollment in business school. She looked at schools such as the University of Chicago, "but I just liked Kellogg so much better," she says. "There was warmth there that I did not find at other places. It was like they cared whether I got my MBA."

Wistar says that she "has learned so much" in Tanzania, but doesn't discount the possibility of coming back to America to further her education. "If I could, I would get MBA number two," she says. "You tell Kellogg that I am all over it."

 

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