America’s Foreign Service Officers allow the U.S. to maintain critical relationships with other nations around the world. It is all-consuming and deeply intense work, with national and global security hanging in the balance. The success of these missions would not be possible without the aid of caring professionals like Jennifer Monna ’12. As a medical provider with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Medical Services, Monna is tasked with safeguarding the well-being of America’s diplomatic community. She is, in effect, a health care provider, a diplomat and a logistical expert all in one. There is nothing she would rather do, and no place she’d rather be than wherever she is most urgently needed.
“It’s pretty much the coolest job ever,” she says.
Monna, who felt the tug toward service as a student in Le Moyne’s Physician Assistant Studies Program, recently returned from a two-year tour as Medical Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria. There she led a team of 10 medical professionals at the embassy medical unit providing primary, urgent, and emergent care services to over 500 embassy staff members and their families. Before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, a typical day for her included treating acute and chronic disease; coordinating Medevacs; educating the community on the infectious diseases unique to Nigeria and developing strategies to safeguard the community against them; managing wellness programs; coordinating disaster preparedness; collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control, Department of Defense, and other federal agencies; providing medical intelligence to Washington; and briefing Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard and others leading the mission on emerging disease trends.
Once COVID-19 took hold around the world, it became the focus of Monna’s work. She helped lead the embassy’s response to the health crisis, building a field hospital, establishing a standardized approach to contract tracing, and assisting the ambassador in crafting her remarks. Monna also communicated regularly with medical professionals leading the federal government’s response to the pandemic stateside. She is proud to say that throughout her time in Nigeria, with carefully crafted policies, a sound testing strategy, and robust contact tracing efforts, there was no staff-to-staff transmission of the virus inside of the embassy once a case was identified.
“I think one of the major things I learned through all of this is how important and valuable it is to work together with other agencies and medical experts and bring all of the ideas to the table to craft thoughtful policy,” she said of the experience. “In the future I will continue to work outside of the box with other resources to include many different voices and perspectives.”
Monna is now beginning a new tour in Brazil, where combatting the pandemic remains among the highest priorities for her and her colleagues. Once the pandemic is under control, she is looking forward to exploring her new home. Her other goals during the tour include developing a wellness and resilience program for staff. And, of course, she will continue to work to craft health care policy that is compassionate, effective and which earns the trust of the community.
There are enormous challenges in Monna’s work. Resources are often scarce and conditions are sometimes dangerous. She must be prepared to contend with dangers that her colleagues in other health care settings do not, such as attacks of chemical weapons, terrorism, violent protests and weapons of mass destruction. She must be a nimble problem solver, prepared, for example, to evacuate a patient suffering from a heart attack if the country in which she is stationed does not have the facilities needed to care for her. But she is buoyed by the work of her mission, the camaraderie of her colleagues, and the calling to serve.
“It’s the job I always knew I wanted,” she says. “To me, service is using your given or learned skills to help others. And in our current epoch of globalism, our outward focus and attention on the rest of the world is critical to the success of our country. It is an exercise in humility. No one talks about the wars that are prevented, the economic disasters averted or the atrocities that are not committed due to our persistent, deliberate presence overseas.”