Public Health Love Story

Public Health Work-Life Fit: Is It Possible To Have Both a Global Health Career and a Family?

Two driven MPH students fell in love. Then  their work threatened to put  8,000 miles between them.

By Lindsay Smith Rogers • Illustration by Anna and Elena Balbusso

When Tara Loyd arrived at the Bloomberg School in 2007, she had a plan.

She was 30 years old and fresh from Lesotho, where she’d volunteered with Partners In Health and co-founded a safe house and outreach program for children orphaned by HIV. After earning her MPH, she’d return to Lesotho, where a job was waiting for her.

And then she met James Keck.

Loyd, MPH ’08, and Keck, MD, MPH ’08, met at the activities fair in the fall and started dating over the next year. As convocation approached, they arrived at a crossroads: Loyd planned to start her new job in Lesotho, while Keck had one more year in the Preventive Medicine Residency Program.

“I was at the precipice to take a martyrdom path,” Loyd recalls, as she weighed what she saw as her two choices. Then one morning her dad took her out to breakfast and asked her: Where did she see herself in 10 years, or 20, or 50? Which had the stronger pull: the idea of being a family or having a fulfilling global health career? Were those mutually exclusive?

Over that breakfast, Loyd decided to stay in Baltimore with Keck. 

She called her would-be supervisor in Lesotho, whose response surprised her. “Follow love,” the director said. “You will always find a way to be of service to the poor and you will make your way back to a place like this,” Loyd recalls. The director shared that she’d spent most of her career working abroad, sacrificing family life for field research—a choice that came with some regret. 

“She had hope that there could be a next generation of global health practitioners who managed families along the way,” Loyd says.

Loyd worked as a research coordinator at the Wilmer Eye Institute while Keck finished his year of training. When he unexpectedly landed a two-year dream job with the Epidemic Intelligence Service in Alaska, the couple married and relocated to Anchorage, agreeing that their next move would be for a job for Loyd.

Two years later, “She picked the spot literally the farthest geographically from Alaska—Malawi,” Keck jokes. 

In the rural district of Neno, Loyd worked as a project manager for Partners In Health, and Keck was hired as director of monitoring and evaluation. Within the year, they were on to the next step of their shared goals: starting a family.

Walking through the markets visibly pregnant, Loyd says, created inroads for her work. “I would get gentle applause or smiles from the women selling fruits and vegetables, sometimes because they, too, were pregnant, but often I think because the sight of the expat project manager in the same humbling position as everyone else was quite equalizing.”

Today, Loyd and Keck have two children and live near extended family in Kentucky. Keck is an assistant professor of Family and Community Medicine at UK HealthCare. Loyd is co-CEO for PIVOT, a nonprofit that provides health care in resource-poor areas. She works remotely with her team in Boston, overseeing ground operations for a project in Madagascar. She visits Boston every other month and spends six weeks every summer in Madagascar.

Whenever possible, she brings her family along.

“The experience my children get by traveling to Madagascar is shaping their lives and our role as their parents,” Loyd says. “Ultimately, we feel they are blessed by the amazing perspectives they have on their own privilege and the pride they take in being part of this work. One of my proudest moments as a mother happened recently when the PIVOT annual report arrived in the mail. My 5-year-old … confidently started flipping through the pages, noting, ‘I know that doctor and that nurse, and look at the strip on that child’s arm [a Mid-Upper Arm Circumference strip to screen for acute malnutrition]—it’s green, so he is not going to be too hungry,’” says Loyd.

Visiting job sites with her kids in tow continues to forge inroads. “Being seen as a mother breaks down so many barriers I have as a white, English-speaking woman,” she says.

Nearly a decade after they met, Loyd and Keck have built a life on their shared goal of global public health service as a family.

“There’s a whole generation of public health heroes that sacrificed their personal lives,” says Loyd. “Now, there’s a group of us that are really trying to have global health careers as parents.”  

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