On a three-day trip to the Boston area, I squeezed in some key research for the book. I interviewed the International Healthcare Innovation Professor at Harvard Medical School, then a vegan Buddhist who runs a 70-acre animal rescue farm, and next a tech genius who advises national governments on how to use technology to solve health and communication infrastructure problems in the developing world. The amazing thing is that these interviews were all done with the same person. His name is John Halamka, and he’s the most powerful person that you’ve never heard of.
John is not your average guy. He has an MD from UCSF, a PhD from Berkeley, Masters degrees from both Harvard and MIT, and two Bachelor’s degrees with distinction from Stanford. The best way to describe him is as a combination of Leonardo Da Vinci, Steve Wozniak, and H.D. Thoreau. As we strode through his beautiful Unity Farm Sanctuary – fifteen acres of crops, fifteen acres of animal sanctuary, and forty acres of wild temperate forest – he imparted a dizzying stream of information about the horticultural and ecological aspects of the farm.
“I impregnate these oak logs with shitake mushrooms. Shitakes sell for $14/lb and have a shelf life of six weeks, so the economics are more favorable than most other mushrooms,” he told me.
“You know as much about your mushrooms as Thomas Jefferson knew about his apples,” I said to him.
“Ha!” was all I got out of him before he moved on to show me a compost sifting machine which he had built and designed himself out of used bicycle rims, chicken wire, an electric motor, and a kevlar belt system. This was within eye-shot of a very impressive cantilevered observation deck that he built himself thirty-five feet above the ground and attached to the tree with a “floating anchor,” allowing the tree to grow while not disrupting the structure.
He was only in town for thirteen hours, having just flown in from meetings with high-ranking dignitaries in Shanghai, then he was off to Chicago, Reykjavik, and Helsinki.
John flies 400,000 miles per year, mostly to give talks about how organizations and countries can completely revamp how they record, store, and share medical information. This may sound tangential to our daily lives, but it saves billions of dollars and countless lives by streamlining archaic systems and making this critical information accessible, searchable, and shareable on a massive scale.
“I generally don’t get paid for my talks, but I care more about the impact that they can generate. For instance, my last talk brought in $10 million in donations for health-care-related solutions, and that makes it worth it to me.”
Information Technology is his Kung Fu. He taught himself coding and learned how to build computers by sifting through dumpsters for discarded electronics components behind the huge aerospace manufacturing facilities in the LA area where he grew up. As a teen-ager he built a computer hardware system that the UCLA Medical School bought and was still using when he returned to the school for his medical residency.
While attending Stanford, besides meeting his future wife, Cathy, he met and befriended Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and eventually designed some of the hardware for the Apple IIe.
These facts are in my mind as John points to two Alpacas. “That is Tahoe and that one is Ella Mae.” (Pointing) Those are guinea fowl, fainting goats, and miniature horses over there, and that 2,000 lb. Highland Scottish Bull is named Dudley. His horns are warm because they are vascular. Feel them.”
He knows each of the 100-plus animals by name and bursts into vigorous affection when he encounters each one of them – scratching, hugging, and coddling them for a few seconds in turn. When I also see the chickens, cows, horses, geese, and turkeys, I start to get a Noah’s Ark vibe. “These are all rescues. Some from zoos, others from the slaughterhouse,” he tells me.
“You seem incredibly busy. How do you possibly have time to run this farm on top of the other hats that you wear?”
“There are twenty-four hours in a day, 365 days in a year. That’s plenty of time to get a lot done. Besides, my wife and I don’t sleep much. When I’m home I put in twelve or fifteen-hour days on the farm. And we also have dozens of very devoted volunteers that help us.”
A 400-lb sow leans on my lower leg and nibbles on my now filthy Converse All Stars as I continue. “Do you have any vices or indulgences?”
“Well, I don’t drink coffee, drink very little alcohol, and I don’t really get much from indulging in food. I guess maybe a way that I unwind once in a while is to watch an episode of Game of Thrones with my wife.”
Ahh, so he is human.
We walked to the house, which is on the farm grounds, and sat down for some tea. “A medical-city CEO gave this to me a week ago in Dailan and told me it’s the best tea in China.”
As I sipped the exquisite beverage, he told me that we’d have to wrap up soon because he had a call with a billionaire altruist (who John asked me not to name) in twenty minutes. Duly noted.
“You’ve got a PhD in geography so you must have traveled a bit?” he said to me.
“Yeah, I’ve been to about forty countries. You must have been to a hundred or more.”
“I’ve been to them all, I think,” John surmised.
“Even Bhutan?” I asked. And at that, he launched into a story about a non-profit foundation medication delivery and blood testing program there, which he oversees, that is facilitated in mountainous rural areas by drone delivery of medication and retrieval of blood samples. He also spoke of a program in South Africa that he helped to develop where people text a code that appears on the back of their pill pack when they open and take the medicine. They get a dollar as an incentive each time they do so, which helps to create a large database of the regional application and effectiveness of the drug.
Near the end of our chat, on what constituted only a thirteen-hour stopover at home for John between international flights, I brought it back to sustainability. “Why did you become a vegan?” I probed.
“It’s sustainable for the planet and for me. There is no way the earth can support a western diet for eight billion people. Also, since I went vegan twenty-five years ago, I’ve lost eighty lbs. and been in virtually perfect health.”
As the technology director of the nation’s most prestigious and prolific medical school, it seems fitting that John would walk the talk and keep himself in good health. But more impressive to me is how this conspicuously humble man uses his savant-like skills to revolutionize how institutions and entire nations use technology to improve health outcomes for billions of people. John is truly a world-changer, and somehow along the way he manages to be an icon of sustainability as well.