Alumna Profile: Kate Sugarman, MD ’88
A Career Guided by Social Justice
Although many of her patients have experienced unthinkable acts of cruelty and abuse, Kate Sugarman, MD ’88, refuses to use the word “victims” to describe them. To her and her colleagues, they are always “survivors.”
Sugarman, a family practitioner and HIV physician in Washington, D.C., treats refugees who have fled from nations ravaged by government-sanctioned human rights violations. Through her work as a clinician at a public health clinic called Unity Health Care, Sugarman began crossing paths with torture survivors whose stories inspired her to develop ties with various refugee agencies in the area, voluntarily providing forensic medical evaluations of people’s scars as they applied for asylum.
Two years ago, her involvement expanded when she joined the Board of Directors of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) International—the only group in the United States founded and run by survivors of torture. The organization had a small staff when she signed on, but after Washington lost its only formal torture treatment program in 2015, Sugarman and her fellow board members sprang into action.
“More than 100 people were going to lose their lifesaving therapy. We had no money, but we started fundraising to bring on these fantastic psychologists and social workers,” says Sugarman, whose TASSC team ultimately secured a federal grant to support its rapid growth. The coalition empowers its members by assisting with asylum applications, providing mental and physical healthcare resources, offering temporary housing and spearheading advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill.
“We use what we call a strength-based model,” explains Sugarman, who has been interested in social justice for as long as she can remember. After graduating from Jefferson, she completed Montefiore Hospital’s Residency Program in Social Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y., and worked with a drug abuse treatment program for pregnant women. She then moved to Israel, where she co-founded a program that served disabled children and later treated patients at an AIDS clinic before returning to the U.S. and settling in Washington. “Traditional medicine treats people by focusing on their disease, whether it’s heart failure or a psychosis. But at TASSC, we focus on people’s strengths—they’ve fled their country, they’ve made it to America, they’ve overcome countless obstacles. Now it’s time to build on all of that strength to help in their recovery.”
One of Sugarman’s favorite activities is taking torture survivors to medical schools, where they talk to students and residents about treating patients who have endured similar trauma. Telling their stories helps them heal, she says. Another favorite: accompanying them to marathons and other races. The majority of the survivors she sees have come from Ethiopia, and many were elite runners back home. After they become acclimated to life in the States, Sugarman encourages them to return to the sport they once loved. An amateur (“and very slow!”) runner who joined her first running club at age 45, she helps survivors train and has recruited a pro bono team of professionals—including a massage therapist and a physical therapist—for support.
The runners have significant physical issues to work through, but Sugarman says financial pressures present an even bigger barrier. “These are people who are working two or three jobs with all kinds of crazy shifts that don’t allow them time for training. They’re working nonstop to survive and to be able to send for their families.” Still, Sugarman urges them to participate when they can and travels with them to races in the D.C. area and beyond—sometimes as a cheerleader, and sometimes as a runner herself. Getting back to running revitalizes people who have lived through a nightmare, she says.
“Survivors see me shortly after arriving in America, and then I get to watch their entire journey. It’s so exciting to see people heal and put their lives together—their resilience is wonderful and amazing. Working with this population is a true privilege. I definitely receive more than I give.”
-Karen L. Brooks