Clement Kairouz was a participant in CRHP’s June Course. Students spend the first month of the June Course learning about our model of community-based health and development and then spend the second month conducting research on a topic of their choice. This blog post is Clement’s reflection at the end of the course.
Today, after spending almost eight weeks in India, I am still trying to grasp all the activities and encounters that I have experienced this summer at the Comprehensive Rural Health Project in Jamkhed. Partaking in the Mount Sinai Global Health Summer Program granted me an enriched understanding of the topic of cultural sensitivity and empathy as well as added another dimension to my future as a physician, a focus on addressing global health disparities and the needs of underserved populations.
I embarked on my trip with minimal expectations of what I would experience while in rural India. Of course, I did anticipate to encounter snake charmers as well as eat ample amounts of murgh makhani, better known as butter chicken. However, modern foreign culture did not satisfy my stereotypes, and I soon came to understand that snake charming was illegal in India, and butter chicken was only popular in the Punjabi region, and is not an accurate representation of the Indian cuisine and its array of spices. This was only the fetal stage of the lessons I was about to learn this summer, and a profounder personal understanding of what Aristotle meant when he said “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”
The days of the summer unfolded, bringing with them new lessons, sights and experiences as I embraced the curiosity and zeal cultivated through meeting new people. These various encounters allowed me to form friendships with U.S graduate and nursing students from Emory University, medical students from Hong Kong as well as a Philosophy and Theology professor from Belgium. These newly found relationships translated into frequent insightful conversations that benefited me to further mature both intellectually and emotionally.
In preparation to start my research project of assessing the nutritional status and prevalence of anemia in children less than three years old, I was able to meet with the directors and staff at CRHP; which included mobile health team workers, social workers, translators and an army of modern day Mother Theresas known as the Village Health Workers. Selected by their villages, these 51 VHWs are the vital component in delivering a holistic approach to health improvement by mobilizing their communities to better hygiene, family planning, nutrition and women’s economic rights. These women, who are mostly illiterate and classified as low caste members of their communities, embody how human willpower and fortitude can rise above what is believed to be ‘one’s destiny’; where they surpass the limitations imposed due to their geographical birthplace and socioeconomic status.
This unfamiliar trail of encounters continued as it lead me to the most memorable, emotional experience of this summer abroad. A trip to the CRHP farms to learn more about irrigation during the drought and monsoon seasons was concluded by having tea with Ratna as she shared her powerful life story with our group. Ratna, a beautiful young woman with a smile that radiates strength and warmth, is a HIV/AIDS-positive survivor who resides on the farm. She got married when she was 16 years old, and by the age of 18, she had lost her husband and newborn baby to AIDS, as well as being infected with the virus herself. Even though the old Indian tradition of sati, in which the newly widowed woman would immolate herself on top of her husband’s burning body, is banned and not practiced anymore, some societies still consider widows a bad omen as well as a financial burden. This lead Ratna to be abandoned by her husband’s family as well as her own. Alone, sick and with no money, Ratna’s attempt to work on farms doing manual labor was short-lived, since the owners, afraid of catching the virus, would kick her out once they found out she was HIV-positive. As the sense of loneliness, defeat and loss intensified, Ratna’s determination to survive dwindled her to attempt to end her life.
This failed suicide attempt lead Ratna to encounter a social health worker that introduced her to Drs. Raj and Mabelle Arole, co-founders of the Comprehensive Rural Health Project. The Aroles embraced Ratna and employed her at the rehabilitation center at CRHP, located on the farm, which was created to aid women who are left vulnerable, either due to illness or stigma, to become healthy and independent members of their communities. To remove the stigma associated with HIV and spread awareness about how it is spread, Dr. Raj asked Ratna to eat from the same plate he ate from at staff dinner. Ratna has restored her will of survival and regained her health and happiness. Today, she is not only the manager of the farm, but also a proud mother of a twelve year old girl whom she adopted.
Though Ratna’s story, I was able to realize that, as humans we all seek the same yearnings; validation, love, security and hopes for a better future. However, the way we perceive and work towards them is what differentiates us apart. In conclusion, my summer experience in India has deepened my love for travel and passion for holistic medicine, and taught me that many important lessons in life can never be expressed in black and white, but must be experienced. It also taught me to never travel without sunscreen. Seriously, never!