Distinguished Alumna

Elizabeth Collins, MD, MPH, '96

written by Rebecca Budde

"The basic practice of medicine is the same no matter where you are," says Elizabeth Montgomery Collins, MD, MPH. That was the lesson she learned on her first overseas medical trip to Malawi, Africa as a third-year SIU medical student from Charleston and Centralia, Illinois. Since that first experience, she has cared for HIV-infected children and adults and also worked as a global health expert in many areas of the world, including Malawi, Peru, Romania, Moldova, the Dominican Republic, Russia, Nepal, Haiti, Botswana, Tanzania, Lesotho and Swaziland.

"On that first trip, every day we sat around a table and presented the cases the same way we were taught in med school: chief complaint, history of present illness, past medical history, physical exam, lab results, assessment and plan. Medicine Elizabeth Collins, MD, MPH, '96doesn’t change; even without resources, doctors know how to do it. Rounds might be held around a rickety table, with open windows in a hot room, or in a makeshift structure, but the doctor still wears the white coat and the presentation of the important findings remains the same. Treating patients in resource-poor regions often makes me think of the Hippocratic Oath ("Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick") and even makes me want to cry sometimes when I consider the profound and humbling opportunity we have to make a positive difference in people’s lives. But that’s just what we naturally do as doctors the world over."

Much of Dr. Collins’ work has been focused on reducing the transmission of HIV from mother to child through education and medication. These infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have declined by more than 90 percent since the early 1990s.

Dr. Collins is the 2013 recipient of the National Academies of Science Jefferson Science Fellow award. This honor enables her to serve as senior science advisor to the Secretary of State’s Office of Global Partnerships and the U.S. Department of State. She has served as a consultant to various government bodies on topics of global health. At the U.S. Department of State, she addressed youth health issues by working with others in China, Northern Ireland and Switzerland.

While much of her global health work has taken her far from the United States, Dr. Collins’ resolve in helping others doesn’t end upon her return back home.

After Hurricane Katrina, she used her medical knowledge to aid those in the areas most deeply affected. "When hearing about the destruction and lack of medical care for the people stranded in Louisiana I remember saying, ‘This is not going to happen in my country," Dr. Collins recalls. She immediately took action, securing medical supplies, and with the help of Col. Sean Hollonbeck, MD, MPH, ‘97, was able to fly on a donated corporate jet to access those who needed her help in the New Orleans area.

"To see Dr. Collins in action is awe inspiring," Col. Hollonbeck states. "She is a gifted, caring, kind and tough physician."

Her gifts were also evident to her mentors at SIU School of Medicine. Though while in medical school she admits that she liked "almost everything," she meshed the best with those in pediatrics, especially Greg Bennett, MD, associate professor of pediatrics. "I have been proud to watch this alumna of ours contribute significantly to research and pediatric teaching and academic leadership at the national level," Dr. Bennett says.

After graduating from SIU SOM, Dr. Collins completed her master’s degree in public health at St. Louis University (1997) followed by a pediatric residency at the University of Louisville (2000). "Kids do so well when we treat them," Dr. Collins says about her chosen career of working with children. "They bounce back when we take them out of a bad situation and they get better so quickly."

Since 2008, Collins has worked as an associate professor of pediatrics specializing in retrovirology and global health and as a pediatrician with the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Previously, Dr. Collins worked as a pediatrician at Saint Louis University and directed many programs, including the Medicine Abroad Program, Foreign Adoption Clinic and the Pediatric Advocacy and Community Education Program at Saint Louis University.

Collins says she believes her accomplishments can be attributed to her saying "yes" to opportunities along the way. "So many opportunities have come my way; I’m so lucky," she admits. "All the things I’ve said yes to helped me build this dream career."

The Distinguished Alumni Award from the School’s Alumni Society Board of Governors recognizes outstanding contributions to medicine and distinguished service to humankind. It is presented annually at SIU SOM’s commencement ceremony.

Watch Dr. Collins' Speech