Jonathan Lee-Melk, MD, might well have become a fourth-generation farmer in the small Wisconsin town where he grew up were it not for the burning restlessness he felt since he was a child. Instead, he fearlessly followed his interests and passions, having no idea where they would lead him.
Jonathan’s odyssey began with the decision to go to college, one he credits to his parents, particularly his father, “a big, strong Wisconsin man,” he says, with love evident in his voice, “who worked really hard seven days a week and who wishes that he himself had had the opportunity to go.” Jonathan’s mother is a nurse and both his parents made sure that all four of their children got higher educations. “If it weren’t for that, I’d probably be raising gladiolas,” Jonathan smiles.
Instead, he studied sociology. “There are many social determinants as to why a child is not healthy or a family is not healthy or a community has the problems that it does. Sociology helped me adopt a very nonjudgmental view of these issues,” he explains. Not that I don’t think certain things are right or wrong,” he quickly adds. “For example, I believe that all children have a right to health care – period. That’s something I’m not able to compromise and am willing to speak out for. I just can’t wrap my brain around the argument for why a six-week old or a six-month old or a six-year old should be held responsible for their parents’ decisions or destinies.”
What followed was a series of wide-ranging life experiences--from working at a non-profit offering medical care for neglected children in Bolivia, where he later formed The Rosa Vera Fund, to an introduction during his residency to another influence: Dr. Randy Christensen, Medical Director of the Children's Health Fund (CHF)'s Project in Phoenix. “Randy is a great guy, a great doctor, a great teacher, and a great role model,” Jonathan says. “One of his many responsibilities is running the Children’s Health Fund’s mobile medical clinic, and caring for adolescents living on the street. That’s his passion and he gets medical students and residents involved in it. Some people dread it and some people love it. I was one of the people who loved it.”
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit. Randy asked Jonathan to join CHF as they mobilized to provide care in the Gulf. This came right at the time that Jonathan was considering taking a job at the Chiricahua Community Health Center as the sole pediatrician for some of the poorest, most medically and socially challenged children living on the U.S./Mexican border. Working on CHF's mobile medical clinics in the Gulf, Jonathan was formulating a plan. "I would go to Chiricahua and petition CHF to take us on. I wanted to build a true medical home for children in the area that had never seen anything like one before. On May 2008, Chiricahua became the Children’s Health Fund’s 22nd project. In November 2009, Chiricahua and CHF celebrated the delivery of the brand new mobile medical clinic with a day long community celebration and ribbon-cutting.
Jonathan smiles, “Children’s Health Fund also gave us a grant to hire a care coordinator, which was critical because way too many things were falling through the cracks. All of the care coordination, social work and referrals I can now hand off to her and I can concentrate on being a pediatrician. Most importantly, I draw endless inspiration from the Children’s Health Fund and their other projects. You cannot underestimate the importance of inspiration, the feeling of being connected to a wider network and not just being down here in these borderlands on my own. I visit some of the other sites and see my colleagues and what they’re doing and how long they’ve been doing it and I think, ‘If they can do that there, we can do this here.’ None of it would be possible without the Children’s Health Fund.”
By the way, Jonathan concludes, “For the first time I can remember from the time I was child, I don’t feel restless anymore and that’s amazing. Year after year after year, I was always planning my next move and, now, for the first time, I’m not. I have no thoughts of going anywhere else. I’m going to see this through.”