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Sara Pullen ’93: An Anti-colonialist Approach to Health Care

Sara Pullen ’93: An Anti-colonialist Approach to Health Care

By Sarah Olson ’26

Sara Pullen ’93 is a professor at Emory University School of Medicine. Her clinical work focuses on HIV, specifically chronic pain and opioid use. She is also the director of the Emory World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborative Center, which is designated to support and carry out work for the WHO. There are only nine rehabilitation collaborating centers like this worldwide, and Emory is the only one in North America. Emory only recently became a Collaborating Centre, being designated in 2023. Pullen works in Latin America and the Caribbean, assessing and making recommendations on health care systems in the region in collaboration with local health leaders and WHO colleagues.  

Sarah Pullen holding a baby in a health care facility

The countries request the assessments from the WHO, and Pullen works closely with the local health care workers and leaders. Pullen says she takes an anti-colonialist approach to her work with global health. “Global health has a difficult history of colonialism: Western countries and cultures coming in thinking they're saving people or fixing people,” she says. “But people don't need to be fixed or saved. They need people to work collaboratively and respectfully with them.” 

She goes to countries that request assessments and then works with the local team to figure out how to fill the gaps in the health system. The team examines the current health care system and the main factors affecting mortality and health. One example, Pullen says, was looking at things like whether people are able to get affordable wheelchairs and whether there is enough support for them after they’re out of the hospital. “We look at this big picture and assess the situations,” Pullen says. “Then we have meetings with the Ministry of Health, the local community members, and local health care teams, and then we provide our recommendations. We make sure they're in agreement before we move forward with a strategic plan.”

Pullen gives a lot of credit to NMH for where she is now. In her senior year, she did a semester abroad in the Dominican Republic. “It was life-changing,” she says. Pullen is from Deerfield, Massachusetts, and hadn’t seen much of the world when she came to NMH as a sophomore. Then NMH gave her this opportunity, and she became fluent in Spanish, explored a new country, and even, as a teenager, realized the health disparities. She realized that what the U.S. has is almost excessive compared to some countries where there’s just not enough of anything. 

Dr Sara Pullen and colleagues at a Ministry of Health Office

“I always thought about my time in the Dominican Republic throughout college and grad school,” Pullen says. “When I started at Emory as a professor at the medical school, one of the things I was tasked with doing was starting up a global health program. And so, the first thing on my mind was the Dominican Republic. I always kind of held on to it ever since I was 17.” She says her time at NMH led her to pursue her global work. 

Pullen went to NMH because it aligned with her and her family's ideals. She says it was an easy choice to decide to come. Entering as a sophomore, she was insecure, quiet, and unsure of herself, but NMH grew her confidence. She says, “One teacher, Kyp Wasiuk, changed my whole life. She believed in me, nurtured me, and told me I was smart. No teacher had ever told me that before.” Pullen’s favorite classes were in history, specifically the class Women in History, where she learned about history but through the perspective of the women. “I just absolutely love, love, love NMH. It was such a great place for me, and it was a very empowering experience. It made me who I am today.”

Sarah Olson '26, from Ketchum, Idaho, is a reporter and writer in the NMH communications office.

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