by Vivian Bui and Marina Najjar
Between harmonica practice with his blues band, surf sessions, urgent care shifts, and ski trips to the mountains, Dr. John Vallee can be found in our clinics, teaching eager students the ins and outs of medicine. Unlike many of these students, young Dr. Vallee did not think he had an affinity for medicine—especially after fainting while shadowing a surgeon in high school. Despite this, Dr. Vallee went on to graduate from UCSF Medical School in 1975. Eventually, Dr. Vallee’s love for the ocean brought him to Santa Barbara, where he found Aeromedicos, an organization that brought healthcare to rural Baja. His love for underserved medicine and passion for teaching led him to Doctors Without Walls – Santa Barbara Street Medicine (DWW).
What sparked your interest in medicine?
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to be, but I thought a doctor was at the end of the possibilities. I was really more into zoology. I wanted to go to graduate school and study zoology, but because of Vietnam, I chose medical school and I enjoyed it. [Staying in medical school] was incentivized by not getting drafted. Medicine wasn’t really by default, but I just kinda steered me that way. Once I was in med school, I liked it more and more.”
Can you tell us about your experience working with underserved populations prior to DWW?
“I had always heard of DWW. Once I retired, I wanted to continue serving underserved populations. I had done some other volunteer work down in Baja [with Aeromedicos], an organization that takes doctors, dentists, and volunteers in a small plane and flies down to Mexico to remote regions that don’t have much medical care. The dentists do the most work down there, but we do what we can. I really enjoy taking care of people who really don’t have anyone to take care of them.”
What are some challenges and joys you’ve encountered in our clinics?
“It’s made me more familiar with the homeless population and how different they are from a lot of the mythology about them. I don’t have some big global agenda. I’m not going to put an end to homelessness. I’m not sure that—in the big picture—we’re making much of a dent in poverty or homelessness. But it feels good. They’re appreciative. You feel you’ve given them the time and attention. And they know somebody cares about them.
The main rewards I get are: number one, the teaching, and number two, the interpersonal interaction with the homeless individuals. Teaching at DWW is what I have the most enthusiasm for. When it comes to larger social issues—like housing and connecting our patients to a healthcare network—our students do a much better job than I do. It’s an impressive system that gets veterans into the VA clinic and others into neighborhood clinic.
I’m not an optimistic person about mankind in general. There’s no quick fix for homelessness or poverty, but people trying is a start. This population has problems that aren’t going to be easily fixed. They have chronic mental illness for which treatment is difficult to give on an ongoing basis. A lot of them have substance abuse problems. The problems are—if not insurmountable—way beyond my ability. That’s a big challenge.”
What advice do you have for someone looking to get into the field?
“A lot of people enter medicine with altruistic, hopeful personas, but after four years, you’re $100,000 in debt, and you see you how hard people in rural areas work. So stick to your guns.”