What Inspired Me at Aspen Spotlight Health

Imagine walking through a field of tents on a warm, sunny day in Aspen, CO, and seeing a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, the head of a U.S. government health agency, the CEO of a multinational company and a leading philanthropist who has given many millions of dollars to fight disease all around the world. Then, imagine walking up to them to share your own ideas, or thanking them for their commitment to the health and well-being of all people.

That is exactly what it was like to attend the Aspen Institute’s Spotlight Health event as part of their larger Ideas Festival last month. I was fortunate to participate with colleagues from the CDC Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it was the most unique health conference I’ve ever attended over my entire health advocacy career.

Not your ordinary health conference

Spotlight Health brings together the highest-level thought leaders from government, the private sector and philanthropy in an intimate environment where attendees engage one-to-one to help address the most critical health issues of our time. At every turn, the people surrounding us were those at the top of their fields, and the idyllic setting inspired conversation and collaboration.

What was so different about this conference? For one, I was struck by the emotion I felt. The organizers made a conscious decision not only to host experts but also to highlight the human side of health at every session. For instance, at the opening session, 10 people shared 10 big ideas. Of course, leaders like the U.S. Surgeon General were among those presenting, but I was most struck by the idea of a 16-year-old girl confined to a wheelchair from a genetic disease. Her bold, passionate idea was to be thankful for pain that enables her to think more clearly about solutions to it. I was awestruck by her courage and joined others in an emotional standing ovation.

I was particularly inspired by CDC Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat, and our own President and CEO Dr. Judy Monroe, who spoke at several key events. Their command of CDC issues ranging from Zika to drug resistance—and their ability to communicate with care, compassion and expertise to a general audience—was incredible. Related to Zika, both leaders passionately described how Zika deteriorates the brain of a fetus and how it is devastating families. Both leaders also emphasized how proud they are of CDC staff who are rallying once again to respond to this latest public health crisis on the heels of Ebola and their collective commitment to save babies from irreparable harm.

Key Spotlight Health takeaways

In terms of the CDC Foundation’s involvement at Spotlight Health, and the participation of our CDC colleagues, I think we all appreciated getting out of our everyday silos. Because the conference was so broad-based, and focused on such big ideas, we were all inspired to come back to our work refreshed, thinking in new and innovative ways—especially about ways to engage with private- and philanthropic-sector leaders who are as passionate as we are about protecting the health of all Americans.

Personally, the conference emphasized the importance of making time for an event that’s out of your normal work routine—one that takes your brain into a deep dive and stimulates you by talking to people you might not normally connect with on a daily basis.

As a new CDC Foundation staff member and former CDC employee, I was especially proud to describe how we support CDC’s work at the event. At every turn, people seemed to be in awe of CDC’s work, just as I am. In fact, one participant from Miami made a point to connect with me just to say “thank you” for CDC’s publications, on which she and her colleagues depend at a county level. I was also proud that my CDC colleagues who attended the event put forward the human face of public health. These CDC experts are in the field every day, whether in a Zika-affected country or in laboratories here at home, and to see them share their stories at Spotlight Health was a privilege.

Elizabeth-Ann Wieber is director of external affairs for the CDC Foundation