UNTHSC says farewell but not goodbye to Dr. Witold Migala

By Sally Crocker

Migela Web
Dr. Migala taking office as new TPHA president

Dr. Witold Migala is ready to hit the road again.

The epidemiologist who has traveled the world helping people from Haiti and Madagascar to Nigeria and beyond has lived, worked or experienced more than 75 countries during his lifetime.

He was in the first UNT Health Science Center cohort to graduate with the Master of Public Health degree back in 1997 and subsequently earned his PhD through UNTHSC’s up-and-coming, new Public Health program in 2000.

He returned in recent years to teach for the School of Public Health (SPH) and serve as director of its MPH in Epidemiology program.

Not surprisingly, he also developed the school’s Global Health Graduate Certificate program.

Never one to settle in a typical office space for too long, Dr. Migala recently felt the familiar call back to international field work, leading to the next phase of his career that begins this summer.

As he takes on a new role as President of the Texas Public Health Association (TPHA) and transitions to adjunct professor status with the SPH, Dr. Migala plans to continue representing UNT Health Science Center and the strides that students, faculty and alumni are making to improve public health around the world, as he himself goes back out on the road to real-life practice.

“It hit me one day while I was going through pictures I use in my classes that they seemed fairly dated, and I probably needed more recent examples of field work if I’m going to share them with students,” he said.

UNTHSC students have gained real-life perspectives far beyond traditional textbook cases and study examples by learning from Dr. Migala’s own international experiences with the CDC, World Health Organization and other agencies, where he has helped develop immunization initiatives and other international health service programs.

“I’ve always felt at home delivering health care services to isolated communities where people don’t have the basic resources that most of us take for granted here in the United States, and it just seems like it’s time for me to get back on the road,” he said. “At its root, public health is as much global as it is local.”

He once traveled by four-wheel drive and motorcycle, via canoe and on foot to 58 remote medical clinics in Madagascar over 90 days, sleeping wherever he could on floors, hospital beds and chairs in order to track down possible polio cases and help confer the country’s first year “eradication status” on behalf of the United Nations.

This is a key part of international work that many people might not initially consider, and it’s challenging, Dr. Migala said.

“We don’t always think about the bugs and the heat, the health and safety risks, lack of accommodations and food options, the long hours traveling in trucks on unpaved roads to reach places where even the most basic resources are scarce,” he said. “Personally, that’s the part I love the most.”

There are also significant victories that can only happen when people come together on a very personal level regardless of culture, language and other differences, like the time Dr. Migala worked closely with tribal elders and traditional healers in one reluctant village to immunize against polio.

Over time, he was able to gain their trust and support enough that the chief leader volunteered his young son to be the first for vaccination.

Other global health initiatives he has been a part of have addressed cholera, typhoid fever and infectious and parasitic outbreaks that are relatively unheard of in the United States.

Back home, an important part of Dr. Migala’s experience was also gained in the North Texas area.

He spent a decade as Chief Epidemiologist for the City of Fort Worth, managing the community’s Bioterrorism and Emergency Preparedness Program for six of those years.

“Fort Worth’s population at that time was around 780,000, and the response planning goal was to be able to mobilize local resources to provide medication to all citizens within 48 hours,” he said. “I find myself drawn to complex challenges like this, involving systems development, administrative processes and managerial oversight.”

Complex challenges are, indeed, the driving force behind Dr. Migala’s latest career move.

Returning to life on the road might not be easy but it’s important.

For this roving epidemiologist, it’s the passion, and maybe a healthy dose of wanderlust, that keeps him moving.

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