The many hats of Usha Periyanayagam

Photo courtesy of Usha Periyanayagam

This past year, Usha Periyanayagam has been all over the map. She’s been to Karachi, Pakistan (twice), South Sudan, Boston. She’s worked as a consultant, a teacher of sorts, a medical care worker and an engineer. Believe it or not, her work does have a common thread. Periyanayagam has put on these different hats and traveled to these different places with one goal in mind: to help patients in critical times.

An international emergency medicine fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and recent graduate from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Periyanayagam works in global emergency medicine.

Global emergency medicine, a growing field of global health, does not have a cut and dry job description. “It’s a very broad and multidisciplinary space,” said Dr. Jennifer Chan, the director of global emergency medicine in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Emergency medicine clinicians have a lot of different skillsets, so you can see different emergency medicine clinicians pursuing different pathways, based on their interests, based on their skillsets.”

For example, working in global emergency medicine may include providing humanitarian aid, assisting after natural disasters or working with other healthcare professionals to provide medical training for emergency situations. Chan said there are also many emergency health roles in academics.

In Pakistan, Periyanayagam works with Aga Khan University and the Aman Foundation to coordinate and train paramedics, as well as hospital and emergency department leaders. Periyanayagam and her team are working to provide paramedics with the basic principles of disaster management, because many of the privately owned EMS companies in Pakistan do not have training requirements.

Periyanayagam has also worked in a humanitarian aid environment.

Photo courtesy of Usha Periyanayagam

“I enjoy working in [refugee] camps,” she said. “I feel like those are the populations that have been neglected by society and need help.” Hence, last November and December, Periyanayagam found herself in the Upper Nile state of South Sudan, working for six weeks with the International Medical Corp. At the Gendrassa and Kaya refugee camps, she would spend her mornings providing clinical training and data analysis. In the afternoons she would head to the camps to provide medical care.

Although Periyanayagam has no immediate plans to head back to South Sudan, her third trip to Karachi is coming up in June. She said the aim of this third trip is to teach instructors there how to train the paramedics: this way the program will be sustainable on its own. “One of the biggest things people should know before they get involved [in a global health project] is how to make it sustainable,” she said.

In the meantime, Periyanayagam is channeling her undergraduate degree in engineering to design a defibrillator that can be used in the developing world.

She also has plenty of advice for anyone looking to work in global emergency health. “You always gain more by being in a place than just reading about it,” she said. More specifically, Periyanayagam recommends keeping an eye on situations in low resource settings and, perhaps most importantly, finding out what the locals want.

Chan expressed similar sentiments on about figuring out the needs and desires of a community. “It’s a collaborative exchange between residents, medical students, physicians, and the communities they work with,” she said.

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