Long before she served as health minister of Rwanda (2011-2016), Agnes Binagwaho tried to lock a fellow pediatrician in a hospital room.
Dr. Agnes had spotted the doctor in an exam room with a mother who was cradling her sick daughter. The doctor was asleep.
Appalled, Binagwaho examined the girl herself in a separate room, then asked a nurse to lock the doctor in the exam room where he was sleeping. It did not win her any points with the medical staff, who “found me more guilty for trying to close him in that room for the night than him for mistreating the kid who could have died."
Dr. Agnes is a take no prisoners sort of doctor and activist. She was the leading force transforming Rwanda’s health care system, taking on the AIDS crisis there, and striving to see that even the poorest in the country had access to health care, relentlessly asserting that health — physical, mental and social — was a human right for all.
"Equity is in the heart," she says. "Meaning you always make sure to include everybody, leave nobody out."
Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder and chief strategist for Partners in Health (which delivers health services to poor countries, including some of Rwanda's most destitute villages), said that Dr. Agnes "is both doing the work and holding this utopian goal in mind." The two met at a U.N. General Assembly meeting on AIDS in 2001. Farmer was immediately impressed, he said, by "all her sassitude."
"When I was a little mouse, I tried to make as much noise as a lion," she says. "When I became stronger, I made less noise because the objective was to change. And sometimes to change, you better study and try to do it without screaming too much."