Strange Experiences, Changed Perspective: Research in Rural India

Prathyusha Chenji (WCAS 2015)
Major: Asian Middle East Studies
Location: Tirupati, India
Project: The Effects of Religious Diets on Nutritional Anemia in Women
Fellowship: Radulovacki Global Health Scholars Research Fellowship

When I first found out I would be able to conduct my project abroad for the summer, I was more than a little excited. I usually try to avoid clichés, so I definitely was not expecting a trip that would change my entire perception of the world. But that’s exactly how it worked out.

I wanted to study the effects of religious diets on nutritional anemia in women, specifically studying iron deficiency anemia in non-pregnant women of reproductive age. It’s common knowledge that anemia is determined by what you eat, but very few realize that in India, religion dictates your daily menu. Hindus do not consume beef or pork, some eating only white meat (poultry or fish) or choosing to be vegetarians because of their beliefs. Muslims refrain from consuming pork products, while Christians do not have any religious dietary restrictions, and I wanted to be able to compare these populations and see if their Hemoglobin levels (Hb, # of red blood cells count which determines anemia) differ. My location was Tirupati, India, which I chose because it was a holy town, the most popular pilgrimage site in India (the Hindu version of Mecca, of sorts); if religious diets played a significant role in causing anemia, I could find out there.

But as soon as I arrived, I knew I had entered a whole new world. I wasn’t expecting a clinic with earthly hues on the walls and goldfish in the waiting area, but everything was so different from what I was used to. I remember being so shocked every time the door to the doctor’s office opened, because the patients would swarm the door, fighting each other to get in and treated first! It wasn’t until later I realized how far these people had come from just to see the doctor, how not all of them were privileged enough to call in and make an appointment beforehand and get a ride to the hospital. They had saved up for months for just this visit, and didn’t have all day or they would miss the public transportation taking them back to their hometowns. So they had a right to push through. Dr. Maddini treated hundreds of patients weekly in that small clinic, but few of them could pay the full cost of their visit. Yet she continued to treat them, and they always came back, and they looked at my mentor as though she was their angel. And no matter how many times I explained that I wasn’t a doctor, that I wasn’t even a medical student, the patients looked at me the same way because I was sitting across from my mentor and I was enthusiastic to talk to them about my research. I didn’t even know them and they had more confidence in me than I ever did, which I never got used to. Like I said, it was a whole new world.

It’s actually insane how much I learned. Learning how to cross the street, for example, took me a few weeks (try no traffic rules, no traffic lights, side walks or stop walks, and people drive on the left side of the street! So confusing and scary!) There were days where I couldn’t go to the clinic because we were out of water (which seems insane, but we actually had to wait to buy it from a water truck before resuming daily tasks). I noted that the power goes out for four hours daily in Tirupati, from 8-10 AM and then from noon to 2 PM, because there was less supply than demand. I learned that jeans and blouses make local women intimidated, and I had to get traditional local outfits tailored in order to effectively communicate with patients. I had to accept that to be a doctor, or to be associated with a physician in rural India comes with respect, and everyone (from patients to staff) referred to me as “madam” even when I insisted to be called by my name because I was merely a student. Some patients would quickly answer questions, and practically run away from me after our conversations were over, while others would linger, asking me about my studies, life, trying to get a glimpse of the foreign nation I come from. Honestly, life back home seemed like a dream after just a few weeks abroad.

After this trip, I realized that practicing medicine doesn’t necessarily mean owning fancy equipment in a large hospital, treating patients by appointment. It could also mean everything that my mentor, Dr. Maddini, is attempting to do. By using her profession to treat a primarily underprivileged population, she is improving the lifestyles of hundreds of patients weekly. Her secretary doesn’t need a visitor sign-in; she knows all the patients by name. And when patients call, they call Dr. Maddini directly on her cell, all their numbers in her phonebook along with her family and friends. People are confident they can get a hold of the doctor on the first ring, confident that they don’t have to go through nurses and appointments, don’t ever have to wait to see the doctor. And that’s the kind of doctor I want to be in the future. To be able to serve those who have the least, but have the most heart. It might be difficult, it might lack structure and order (which I desperately need), but it’s an unpredictable life that would benefit the patients the most.

It seems crazy to me how differently things are run back home, how easy we have it even without realizing it. My life, to me, seemed ordinary, but my interactions with local people while conducting research have allowed me to see that my life seems extraordinary to them. For the first time, I feel I’ve acquired an alternate perspective of the world, that perhaps we are the lucky minority who can fret about petty things like classes and facebook while much of the world worries about getting food for the day, or conquering an minor illness. If not for these experiences, I never would have known what I wanted, and my future seems a little less fuzzy now. I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was five, and back then my only reason was because I thought stethoscopes were cool! But I’ve broadened my perspectives, I feel I’ve opened doors to so many opportunities to help people in the future, and though I’m not sure where I’ll be, I know that this past summer will define everything I do for the rest of my life.

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