“Coming from Malawi where access to quality health care, or even just information, is beyond the reach of many is what fuels my passion for public health,” said USF College of Public Health alumna Elizabeth Mkutumula.
At only 37-years-old, she said she’s seen too many people die from preventable causes.
“I hear too many stories of premature preventable deaths of young men and women at the prime of their lives and I don’t want to feel helpless,” she said. “I ask,‘What can I do as a public health professional to stop this?’”
Born in Malawi the middle of five children, Mkutumula originally had aspirations of becoming a medical doctor, but she decided on public health after she says she wanted to make a bigger impact.
“Malawi, like many resource poor countries, has an inadequate number of medical doctors to serve the population,” she said. “I reasoned that I could save more lives by practicing prevention—public health—than medicine and reduce the need for the services of scarce doctors.”
After graduating high school she moved to Mobile, Ala. and completed an assistant program for a physical therapy in 2005 from Bishop State Community College before joining USF.
“I transferred to USF as an undergrad and just fell in love with it,” she said.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in biology in 2011 from USF, she earned a master’s degree in maternal and child health from the USF COPH.
“I loved the passion, the care, the campus, my lecturers, my courses, and the assistance I received from the international student office” she said. “Graduating while maintaining duties of a full-time mom, a full-time wife, and a full-time employee is something I wouldn’t have managed if it wasn’t for all my wonderful and helpful professors and classmates.”
She started her master’s program at eight months pregnant, but said the supportive environment of the COPH was key to her success.
“I had to juggle motherhood, work and school. However, the support that I received from my classmates and professors and the whole COPH culture made it possible to graduate successfully,” she said.
She’s now moved back to Malawi and works as a research assistant at the Malawi Liverpool WellcomeTust in Blantyre, where she interacts daily with the community and assists with clinical and community research projects.
“The organization is one of the premier research centers in Malawi that conducts research in communities, public hospitals and health care centers,” she said. “It does a great job of engaging the public.”
She also volunteers with No Woman Should Die Giving Birth (NWSDGB), an organization whose mission is to reduce maternal deaths in Malawi.
“In my spare time, I tutor students in my neighborhood and incorporate disease prevention education in all sessions. I provide transportation and sometimes accompany low income women in my area to family planning clinics for contraceptives and cervical cancer screenings,” she said.
Mkutumula said the wife of the vice president of Malawi attended a health care fair she helped NWSDGB organize and mentioned how amazed she was to see different maternal health organizations coming together.
“A lot of women came and had access to free contraceptives, got screened for cervical cancer, had blood pressure checks and accessed information on prevention of maternal deaths and chronic diseases,” she said. “We also surpassed our target of units of blood collected.”
Mkutumula has even assisted a woman give birth to a baby on the side of the road and advocated for the woman after the baby passed away due to poor and delayed follow-up care.
“I comforted the woman and fought on her behalf until the head of department and the nurses admitted their fault and apologized to the woman and her family, a rarity in the Malawian health care system,” she said.
Mkutumula is passionate about making an impact in maternal health and said she plans to spend her public health career focused on making lives better for all Malawians.
“It makes me cry when I see and hear of young women and babies—regardless of socioeconomic status—dying in child birth from preventable causes’ that even a resource poor country like Malawi can manage,” she said. “I want to make an impact in emphasizing the need to put in place systems that do not rely too much on a handful of individuals to work.”
She also expressed an interest to collaborate with future USF COPH students interested in doing work in Malawi on topics including: prevention of maternal deaths, breastfeeding promotion and environmentally friendly diaper use and disposal.
“Malawi lacks resources, but I believe the bigger problem is poor resource management due to broken systems,” she said.
Alumni Fast Five
What did you dream of becoming when you were younger?
Where could we find you on the weekend?
On the streets of Limbe (Blantyre Malawi).
What was the last book you read?
“The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever” by Jeff Kinney.
What superpower would you like to have?
Compassion giver (making people compassionate).
What is your all-time favorite movie?
“A Love Song for Bobby Long.”
Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health