Lar Fuortes: Helping the disenfranchised

Dr. Laurence Fuortes encourages medical residents to find a harmonious work-life balance, but his own experience shows how complicated that can be. Fuortes serves in a variety of roles at the University of Iowa. As a professor in the College of Public Health’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, Fuortes teaches Environmental Toxicology and International Health. As a doctor, he serves as Associate Director of the University Employee Health Clinic and Director of the University Occupational Health Services Clinic.

Fuortes teaches the core course in toxicology for Occupational Medicine residents and public health graduate students and works with the residents in the Occupational Medicine Clinic, the University Employee Health Clinic and on MPH practicum experiences. One of his long-term roles has been as principal investigator in the U.S. Department of Energy epidemiologic health survey of Department of Defense Contract Workers.

Known as Iowa’s Former Worker Medical Screening Program, the program offers free medical screenings to former U.S. Department of Energy workers from the Ames Laboratory and Iowa Army Ammunition Plant near Burlington. Those employees may be at risk for health conditions as a result of exposure to hazardous or radioactive substances during their employment at the facilities.

The government first contracted with the UI College of Public Health in 2000 to coordinate medical screenings for the Burlington plant, and added the Ames Lab in 2005. Fuortes has been with the program since its inception.

“It’s a huge patient panel,” he said, noting that about 6,000 former workers have had services provided. Many of the workers, suffering from lung disease, became his patients at UI Hospitals & Clinics.

Fuortes has served as their advocate in expanding the groups eligible to receive compensation for their work-related medical conditions. “Those patients are dying off,” he said of the workers, who were employed in the early years of the nuclear weapons industry, beginning in the late 1940s, and are now reaching their mid- to late-80s.

A lung X-ray is among the eclectic mix of photos, posters and more that fill the walls of his Westlawn office, with a guitar leaning against a corner. “I entertain myself,” Fuortes said, adding that his trumpet playing is stronger than his more recent interest in the guitar and even more recent violin playing. Theoretically, Fuortes should find more time for his musical passions. He is on a four-year phased retirement and is scheduled to cut back on his work hours, though, in practice, that can be a challenge.

Besides the list of positions he holds, Fuortes has been training occupational medicine residents at the UI for 25 years and works with medical students and residents on community-based applied research activities. He also provides consultations on a variety of community concerns, such as the health effects of fracking and other environmental issues.

A native of Washington, D.C., Fuortes earned his undergraduate degree in biophysics from Northern Illinois University, his medical degree from the University of Illinois-Rockford and master’s in preventive (occupational) medicine and environmental health care from the University of Iowa, where he also did his residency. His father worked for the National Institutes of Health as a researcher and Fuortes recalls as a youth listening to the dinnertime conversations of Nobel laureates and “an even greater number of just plain geniuses.”

“That was inspiring as a youngster,” he said.

Fuortes traces his interest in public health, in part, to two years he worked with the Indian Health Service in Minnesota. “It was a phenomenal experience,” he said, noting that he worked with a continuum of different populations from his time in Rockford, Ill., through the Appalachian Mountains area of Kentucky and on the Chippewa Reservation in Cass Lake, Minn.

Fuortes currently serves as medical director for the Proteus Migrant Health Program, which provides health services for migrant farm workers in Iowa.

“It’s all variations of helping people,” he said. “If I can help a group of people who are disenfranchised, that is my passion.”

–  profile by Cindy Hadish