Valerie Luyckx, MBBCh, MSc, PhD, considers herself a lifelong student. She has traveled around the globe, learned a multitude of languages and immersed herself in the pursuit of improving health for those in need.
After attending medical school in South Africa, Luyckx came to the U.S. to further her training and education. During her residency in Internal Medicine, her interest in nephrology blossomed. This eventually led her to a fellowship program between the Brigham and Massachusetts General Hospital. Over the coming years, Luyckx would work throughout the world including in Canada, Switzerland, and for the World Health Organization.
“My training at the Brigham was fantastic not only because of the mentorship, but also because of my fellow colleagues,” she said. “We learned so much from each other. I was struck by how anybody could ask a question. Medical students could raise their hand in a meeting and inquire on a subject. In the many other places I’ve been in my life, the medical student usually sits at the back and doesn’t speak. That is a unique aspect about the Brigham: the equality. Everyone in the room could have a good question or idea.”
A Moral Compass for Guidance
Luyckx also understands that medicine is more than just the science. It includes shared morals and a respect for common humanity. Over the course of her early professional career, Luyckx witnessed some of the disheartening realities that underprivileged individuals face when receiving medical care. While at the Brigham, she recalled conducting research on how children born with low birth weights could have smaller kidneys, fewer nephrons, and are thus predisposed to hypertension and chronic kidney disease.
These issues are known to occur at greater frequencies among those who are socioeconomically, educationally, and structurally disadvantaged. She also described seeing the effect that poor kidney health had on indigenous peoples and other minorities within Canada and the U.S., as well as in low resource settings. These experiences prompted her to reflect on such health disparities and the ever-growing importance of public health—to both improve access to quality care and to prevent kidney disease before its onset, especially for those who are impoverished.
“When you think about the ethical implications of what may cause people to have kidney disease, where does it start? A healthy mother can have a healthy baby, but a mother who’s living under stress or not eating nutritional food may have a baby with low birth weight. These babies then have smaller kidneys and grow up to become adults with a greater chance of having chronic kidney disease,” explained Luyckx. “So, how do you ensure a strong mother? A healthy mother needs to be born healthy herself, grow up in a favorable environment, be educated at a good school, earn a reasonable income, and live in a safe neighborhood. This is just one example of the many societal intersections where an understanding of ethics is needed to help provide equitable care and fair chances at life.”
An Advocate for Global Health
Luyckx notes that the landscape of global health has shifted over the years. While funding and media coverage typically focus on communicable diseases, non-communicable diseases constitute the majority of global deaths. Luyckx explains that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed how intertwined communicable and non-communicable diseases are, as many individuals susceptible to COVID-19 had underlying, non-communicable diseases that exacerbated their conditions. Moreover, in many global health settings, long-term care of kidney disease and other chronic illnesses comes with many logistical challenges like continual access to medications, communication needs, and check-ups. This only adds to the difficulty in managing patients with such conditions during a global hardship like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Furthermore, in resource-limited regions, ethical dilemmas often accompany these troubles. In countries with resource constraints, clinicians may be forced to decide which of two patients with kidney disease should receive dialysis. Luyckx is one of the many people around the world cognizant of these obstacles and dedicated to solving these problems. One of the proposed resolutions includes global health policy changes. Luyckx has advocated for the Sustainable Development Goals spearheaded by the United Nations, which include objectives for good health and reduced inequality.
Today, Luyckx works diligently to collate data from various locations and connect the dots on how so many aspects of humanity impact overall health, and in turn, kidney health. She works on the global stage to not only improve awareness and understanding of kidney disease, but also advocate for societal change.
“The biggest risk to kidney health today is how underrecognized it is in terms of global burden. The obesity pandemic, climate change, and diabetes are all examples of some of the combined threats that can undeniably jeopardize kidney health,” she said. “We need to work together as a planet to treat these urgent problems.”