Though 442 miles separate the Mass General Emergency Department from the White House, the clinical world and public policy worlds do not feel that far apart. At least not for Alister Martin, MD, MPP, an MGH Emergency Medicine physician who, for the past year, served as a White House Fellow in the Office of the Vice President and the West Wing Office of Public Engagement.

“Every day here the stakes are so high, it’s like being in the Emergency Department where every decision matters, because at the end of the day there are myriad downstream consequences to what this White House does,” says Martin. “My perspective has always been to have one foot inside the clinical world and one in the policy world, so this fellowship was an opportunity for me to go upstream and examine and address the broader policy issues that impact our patients in a big way.”

During his 2021-2022 fellowship year, Martin worked directly with Vice President Kamala Harris, learning from her, helping with meeting preparations, working on a team, and helping to plan and run events and engagement opportunities. He also was able to serve as an advisor on voting rights – an area of particular expertise from his prior work with VotER, a program he founded to connect health care institutions with the tools and training to register health care workers and patients to vote.

In the West Wing Office of Public Engagement, Martin helped run the White House’s health equity portfolio, which included managing outreach to the health care provider community keep them updated on the latest vital public health happenings. He also helped lead the White House Health Equity Roundtable as well as five Health Equity Forums, where an important health equity topic, such as housing or economic mobility, was examined to better understand how the administration is tackling the issue, and to help spread the word about novel programs that health care providers and organizations can use to help their patients with that issue.

“These last few months have been a grueling stretch, but what I’ve found is that a small group of changemakers can make all the difference in times like these,” says Martin. “The federal government is the best way to impact the greatest number of people in the greatest number of ways. But it relies on the innovative work of changemakers across the country to be nimble and identify novel solutions that the government can then scale in a massive way.”

During this fellowship, Martin also had the opportunity to go aboard the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier. It served as yet another example of the similarities between his two worlds. “I was able to watch our Navy at work and watch a drill and see these jets land on this naval carrier – it was like a ballet of mechanized steel,” Martin says. “To see it work so fluidly with very little verbal communication, it was almost like they were reading each other’s minds, which is reminiscent of when we are in the hospital and a code or resuscitation is unfolding. It requires a similar level of unspoken trust and coordination to provide seamless care.”

Having an Emergency Department physician at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was fortunate this past summer when, on Aug. 4, lightning struck four people outside of the building. Martin recalls a scene he never hopes to see again, of “people scattering from the lightning and the four downed victims, while Secret Service agents ran toward the victims.” Martin joined Secret Service to assist by providing CPR and AED shocks on scene before additional help arrived. Two of the patients were revived by the time EMS arrived to transport the patients to the hospital. One of the surviving patients subsequently died in the intensive care unit.

Martin with Amber Escudero-Kontostathis, the sole survivor of the lightning strike
Martin with Amber Escudero-Kontostathis, the sole survivor of the lightning strike

Two weeks after the incident, Martin met with the lone survivor at the White House, shortly after she was released from the hospital. They reflected on the circumstances that brought them together and celebrated the start of what Martin feels is sure to be a lifelong friendship.

Martin has now completed his White House Fellowship and has made the journey from the West Wing back to the MGH Emergency Department and looks forward to the continued success and growth of three programs he helped establish: the VotER program; the Get Waivered program, helping patients receive access to opioid addiction treatment; and GOTVax, an initiative aimed at delivering vaccines directly to vulnerable communities throughout Boston.

“This past year was a whirlwind,” says Martin. “It blew my expectations out of the water, and I loved every second of it, but I’m happy to be back home at Mass General with my patients. What I’ll mainly take away from my time in the White House is that it all comes down to relationships and how you treat people. I’ll carry the people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made this year with me for the rest of my life.”