Friday, September 29, 2017

It Started With Outbreak

­­­­­When I was 10 years old, I saw the movie Outbreak.
This, is what I am going to do with my life.  I am going to wear the white suit and steal helicopters and write complicated formulas on the blackboard to teach all the health people things because I know science and I am from the CDC.  Besides, we don’t need another Alanis Morisette because we already have an Alanis Morisette and I can’t sing that great anyway.

I told my mother.

“Yes. We knew this.  You are going to be a doctor.”

Ok great, I would be a doctor and then save the people from the outbreaks.  Preferably in Africa because I think that’s where they are the sickest.  Also ‘cause I want to see a lion.

In high school, I took all the science classes, became valedictorian and told everyone I was going to join Doctors without Borders so that I could save the world.  After graduation, I took a peek at the Doctors without Borders website to see if maybe they would take me out of high school?  You never know, I did take AP Bio.  But no, apparently my dissection of a pig didn’t count as experience.  Ok, just checking.

I went to college and majored in biology.  In my spare time, I volunteered at a biochemistry lab.  Because Dustan Hoffman stole a helicopter but he also knew what he was doing in the lab.  I needed to know how science works from the bottom up.

Over spring break I volunteered at a mosquito laboratory in Vero Beach (NERD).  It was there that I put on my first full-body protection suit and went into a sealed room that contained the chikungunya virus.  The lab tech opened the airtight freezer.  It made a whooshing noise and smoke from the ice spilled out.  She showed me the tube with the virus, put it back in the freezer, and shooed me out of the room. 


Spring break ended, I was not tanner but was covered in mosquito bites.  I could not, at this point, get a boyfriend.

I ramped up my hours at the lab to include nights, weekends and the summer.  I heard from my lab friends that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute was giving a grant for a student to go work at a lab studying Cholera in Kolkata, India.  Two months later I was in India.

Right next to the lab was a cholera clinic.  All day I saw grey people being carried inside.  The smell of diarrhea coming from the beds lingered on your nose hairs long after leaving.  I begged to be able to work there.

“No,” my boss said, politely, smiling and bobbing his head back and forth.  Subtext: “The last thing we need is to be responsible for this curly haired girl getting cholera.”

“Please,” I had persisted.  “I have come all the way to India; I do not want to stay behind a lab bench.”

I was 19, knew the chemistry and was ready to rid the world of cholera!

They allowed me to join a local doctor as he made his rounds in the nearby slum.  The poverty and devastation slapped me around and was exactly what I needed.

When the doctor took patient histories, it was my job to write down how many times the patients had cholera.  Not if they had cholera but how many times.  The doctor kept treating the cholera and the people of this slum kept contracting it.

“But who treats the root cause of the disease?  Makes sure their water is kept clean and stresses the importance of hand washing?”

“This,” the doctor said (drum roll) “is the role of the Epidemiologist” (gong). 

After 3 months I went back to school, continued studying, and in my senior year started applying to Public Health schools. 

When you first walk into the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health a large image projected 3 stories high shows the latest statistics of diseases and pictures of students installing mosquito nets. Omg, I was going to be that student.   It was my Mecca.  I learned about tropical diseases and how to purify a water source so that you wouldn’t get cholera.  And all of my new friends wanted to play with diseases too!  People (many people) came to my Outbreak themed party.  (There were syphilis cookies.)

I spent a year in rural Bangladesh doing my thesis.  It was the best year.  I learned the language, drove a motorcycle between rice paddies to the villages.  Got a taste of office work and submitted my first protocol to an ethical review board.  One of my coworkers died during childbirth.  The ethical review board took 6 months to approve my protocol.  I could see the urgency and could see how long it could take to affect change. 

I returned to finish classes and apply for jobs.  I applied to Doctors without Borders (which should really be called Doctors, Nurses, Epidemiologists and Logisticians without Borders).  I got through 3 rounds of the application process and was finally told “Not yet.  You need more experience.  Come back after a few more years of international work.”

I worked for the UN Foundation and helped people doing cool stuff talk to other people doing cool stuff.  AND THEN.  I was hired to lead a malaria study in Uganda! 

For 2 years I lived in Uganda and went around the country helping to conduct trainings, collect and analyze data.  I worked for the International Rescue Committee on a vaccine trial in Uganda and Ethiopia.  Maybe I could take time off the project and spend a week learning about outbreaks in the IRC refugee camps!  But the study grant ended and I had to look for a job again.

I am sitting at a desk in Ethiopia after a long day of supervising field workers go door to door interviewing people and testing them for HIV.  My face is a little sunburnt, my fingers smell like curry and my shoes are drying in the corner.  For a year and a half I have been helping to coordinate nationwide HIV surveys in Swaziland, Ethiopia and Namibia.  I am 28 years old and have been working in Public Health for the past 7 years.  I am still not Dustan Hoffman.  But tonight I started my application to Doctors without Borders.

I'm the little one on the right