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She tutored, participated in medical care, and connected with Nangula Shejavali ’06

EASTON, Pa., September 27, 2007 — When I said goodbye to Nangula Shejavali ’06 at the end of my college career, I thought I would never see her again. After all, she has spent her time since graduation working in both South Africa and her native Namibia. But it’s intriguing how pieces of my life that seem so far removed tend to reconnect in unexpected ways.Let me back up a little bit. I graduated from Lafayette in 2006 and am currently attending medical school at the University of Massachusetts. Trying to decide what to do for my summer break for the Pathways Program (which emphasizes multicultural and underserved medical care) at U Mass, I gave Nangula a call. Soon, the phone call turned into a plane ticket, and I was on my way to Namibia to gain unmatched intellectual, cultural, and medical experiences!

I spent half of my time in the city of Windhoek and half in rural areas in northern Namibia. One of the most exciting and fulfilling parts of my experience was volunteering at an after-school program for underprivileged children in grades 8 through 12. I soon gained the reputation of being the “science tutor” and helped many kids with their homework. In addition, the program encouraged physical activity of all sorts, varying from basketball to circuit sessions to miniature Olympics. The kids also learned a great deal about positive behavior and protection from HIV and AIDS.

I enjoyed the program immensely–it reminded me of volunteering through the Landis Center at Lafayette. At first, I wasn’t sure how it related to studying medicine. Tutoring kids and playing games? And here we come back to this whole idea of a liberal arts education–putting all the information together into an integrated whole. Was there a direct relationship to medicine? Perhaps not. But the contribution to holistic care and preventative medicine was immense. This program taught healthy behaviors that precluded quitting school and HIV infection in Namibia’s youth. It’s so smart to stop a problem as much as possible before it starts.

In addition to volunteering with the students, I was able to learn about and participate in medical care in Namibia. Nangula and her family helped arrange for me to visit a variety of sites–hospitals and clinics in both rural and urban areas. I took part in a national immunization campaign to eradicate polio and prevent night blindness, shadowed doctors, assisted with minor surgeries, helped screen patients, and filled prescriptions. But best of all, I got to see so many regional and cultural differences. Medical care in a developing country is distinct, especially because there is a lack of both supplies and doctors. I called it “raw” medicine because it seemed more real to me. If someone came in with a headache, doing a CT scan was not always an option. We had to figure out what was wrong without the machinery.

The paradigms of healthcare were different as well. For instance, in rural Namibia, the current recommendation is for HIV positive women to breastfeed their children for the first four months, despite the fact that HIV can be transmitted in breastmilk. The truth of the matter is, the outcomes are better this way. People cannot afford formula, or if it’s donated, much of the water is still not potable. Formula-fed babies don’t get the necessary immune cells in their mother’s milk and end up dying of malnutrition and diarrhea; breastfeeding is a much safer option.

Certainly, my experiences at Lafayette helped prepare me for what I saw in Namibia. I spent four weeks interning with Dr. Phil Goldstein, a Lafayette alumnus and pediatrician. I also worked as an EMT on the Easton Emergency Squad. Both of these gave me insight into medical care, especially in the U.S. healthcare system. In addition, studying in both Australia and London during my time at Lafayette gave me some skills necessary for cultural adaptation.

Yet while the schema may have been fundamentally the same, in some ways, nothing could have fully prepared me for my trip to Namibia, and perhaps that’s why I learned so much from it. When I was leaving, I told Nangula that I hadn’t set any expectations for the trip ahead of time, simply because I didn’t know what to expect. But even if I had, it surpassed anything I could have imagined. It was undoubtedly a life-changing experience. I know I gained as much as I gave, if not more. Thank you, Namibia. Thank you, Nangula. Until next time.

Laura Hagopian ’06 graduated as an A.B. chemistry major and is a student at University of Massachusetts Medical School. She conducted research at Lafayette with Chip Nataro, assistant professor of chemistry, which she presented at an American Chemical Society National Meeting and the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, and in a coauthored article in the scientific journal Organometallics. She spent a semester at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, learning about photography, chemistry, and business, and another semester completing an experiential learning program related to law enforcement in Washington, D.C. She became a licensed emergency medical technician during her sophomore year.

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