Sean Dickson first experienced what he calls "the uneven quality of the American health-care system" when he was seven years old and newly diagnosed with a brain tumor.
As Dickson's parents searched for treatments, they realized that "we have such disparities in care based on where you live," Dickson says. A doctor near their home in rural Illinois recommended a surgery that would have removed not only Dickson's tumor but also a crucial part of his brain. Meanwhile, a doctor two hours away, in Chicago, said he could do the surgery without removing any brain matter.
Dickson underwent a successful surgery in Chicago. Afterwards, his parents continued to steer clear of local doctors. At one point, when the shunt draining fluid from Dickson's brain became blocked and required immediate attention, they rushed their boy all the way back to Chicago. Dickson lost consciousness in the car. In that moment, his parents must have worried: Would their boy make it to Chicago?
He did—but the ordeal left him deaf in one ear. It also piqued his interest in structural barriers to basic health treatment.
Now, Dickson holds a bachelor's degree in public policy and a master's in public health, as well as a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School. His senior undergraduate thesis in public health at the University of Chicago so impressed his professors that the university gave it as a gift to Bill Gates when he visited campus in 2010.
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Dickson works at the non-profit National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, where he advocates for the affordability and accessibility of HIV/AIDS drugs. One such drug is Daraprim, used to treat a parasitic disease in patients with HIV. Dickson is taking Turing Pharmaceuticals to task for the company's abrupt decision to raise the price of Daraprim from $13.50 a pill to $750. That's a 5,000-percent increase, "uniquely borne by the most vulnerable folks," Dickson says.
For someone who seems well positioned to revolutionize the field of public health, Dickson doesn't believe that he alone can change much. To explain this philosophy, he brings up his love of absurdist plays. One of Dickson's favorites is Rhinoceros, by the Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco. Over the course of the play, inhabitants of a small French town transform into rhinoceroses. Herds of rhinos gallop through the streets. House cats are trampled. Plaster from kitchen ceilings falls on dinner plates. Shop owners hang signs: "Closed on account of transformation." Berenger, the central character, commits to fighting rhinocerization, even as his colleagues and neighbors gallop away.
Ultimately, Berenger fails to stop rhinocerization. At the end of the third act, he's the only human left. This failure interests Dickson: "Berenger fights as hard as he can, and yet he's still not able to achieve anything, which gives me context about my work in public health and social justice," he says. "I can hope but I can't expect that my efforts are going to change anything. I have to realize that the systems that are present in this world are so large and have so much inertia that I, as an individual, am probably not going to change them that much."
In public health, change generally happens slowly or not at all—and the battle over Daraprim's pricing is no exception. Dickson predicts that Daraprim won't become significantly cheaper any time soon. Because of a loophole in pharmaceutical law, the generic competitors aren't able to compete in the market with the 62-year-old drug. Without competition, Turing Pharmaceuticals has little incentive to lower its price. Former Turing CEO Martin Shkreli felt confident enough in Daraprim's inflated price to call one tweeter who opposes the price hike "a moron." To win this fight, Dickson says that affordability advocates might have to first completely overhaul the country's generic-drug approval process.
None of this disheartens Dickson. He says that, no matter the outcome, he enjoys the work of striving for change, of fighting off rhinos—even big herds of them.
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