This past summer, I had the incredible opportunity to study global public health in the United States and South Africa through F&M’s Global Public Health course. The ten-week intensive experience began in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As the class came together mid June, we spent four weeks learning about global public health. During our time in Lancaster, we had internship placements with local medical/public health institutions. I worked with SouthEast Lancaster to create an informational video about medical practices for newly arrived refugees in the U.S. In partnership with Taylor Dunbar ’12 and Yi Ye ‘12, we created a video that was made available in various languages demonstrating what the refugee families should expect at their new medical clinic.
Professor Miller’s love for statistics was made apparent by the second or third lecture. Statistics were used to analyze the United States in comparison to South Africa. Statistics regarding various topics were accessed: infant mortality, poverty, life expectancy, HIV/AIDS, TB, and much more. Though the statistics were drastically different for the two countries, I couldn’t really grasp what it meant when an article would say something like “HIV/AIDS accounts for 31% of the total disability-adjusted life years of South African population.” Those numbers came to mean so much more upon my arrival in South Africa at the beginning my first day in my summer internship at the Primary Health Clinic in the middle of an informal black township. Here I was sitting in front of my first patient:
“How did you acquire HIV?” was the first question.
“My boyfriend promised that he was going to use a condom when he had sex with his girlfriends,” replied a woman, a few years older than me.
I stood outside the door of one of the clinic’s fifteen rooms. It rose one floor high, and was one of the only large cement buildings in the Township of Masiphumele, surrounded by houses barely sustained by scraps found on the side of the road. I couldn’t help feeling betrayed by my education. We spent so much time in America trying to understand the social, political, and economic contexts of health. Furthermore, I was not emotionally prepared. Nothing in my 15 years of education had prepared me for the shock I was experiencing. Here we were – in the middle of an epidemic – an epidemic that was only previously understood through readings and discussions. Now this woman was sitting in front of me explaining that she had acquired HIV from her boyfriend’s girlfriend. The cultural context to understanding the mindset of the locals was the key that I had not yet thought about. This moment in my educational history has shaped every moment to come regarding my understanding of health and medicine.
What may have been the root of the existence of such a widespread epidemic? My first inclination would have been poverty. Though Professor Anthony had tried to explain the history and political structure of South Africa, no one had said that a socioeconomic segregation continued to exist to the extent that it did. Blacks lived in black townships while whites and some coloreds were affluent enough to afford city life.
This experience of public health and segregation was just one of many I had during my summer adventure in South Africa. I learned a lot last summer. Aside from understanding what it meant that a woman had a CD4 count of 293 cells/mm3, I learned of the importance of public health education. Since my return, I have worked with many other students and the Human Rights Initiative on creating a plan (ONE Goal) that helps get to the root of prevention by incorporating soccer as a tool to help empower and educate the youth in South Africa.