Jason Chen was one of three recipients of the John and Martha Mabie Fellowship for Public Health Research this year. He spent his summer interning at Genesis, a health and youth focused nonprofit in South Africa.
I had been studying with the IPD program in Stellenbosch, South Africa during spring quarter and wanted to stay the summer and work. So I was connected to this organization named Genesis and it’s associated with a church called Norwegian’s Settlers Church. They started this organization 15 years ago and started out as a medical facility during the beginning of the AIDS Crisis. It was kind of a place where people could go and die with dignity since there were no therapies or anything. This organization then expanded to do other things in the community like youth projects. Now it has grown to this huge organization and has a medical facility on campus, which is kind of like a rehabilitation center so that patients who need more time to recover can go and stay there until they’re healthy enough to go home to their families. Also on their campus is a youth center that a couple of different organizations have offices in as well as their own. They work in a couple of different communities locally, doing camps youth projects, and after school programs as well as a music academy.
I was living at the church and splitting my time between working with the nurses at the medical facility and some youth group projects. Interestingly I’m not Christian (I am Jewish) so it was super interesting living at a church but it did not negatively affect my experience at all.
What were your responsibilities for this internship?
With the nurses, I was pretty much doing everything they were doing. I wasn’t doing medical tasks; I was just caring for patients—changing them, cleaning them, changing beds, helping to feed them, as well as physical and occupational therapy. There were no doctors on site, just the nurses, so I helped check up on the patients.
I did get involved with the music facility a little bit and helped put on a concert that the kids put on for the community. It was also their holiday break for three weeks. So one week was a camp that we ran. There was also an afterschool program and I went to a high school and taught life skills. Life skills is a class in South Africa where they teach them values and self esteem, kind of like a health class but more socially driven. We also talked about HIV with them. It was really great over all. The kids in these communities are dealing with every problem you could possibly think of. Like in one community, the entire generation of parents is gone. The majority of the kids are orphans raised by their grandparents because HIV just wiped out all of them. Which is just crazy to think about. We tried to be there for them and be mentors for them.
But the other communities where HIV didn’t hit as hard, they’re dealing with rape, child abuse, and drinking and drug problems. Like when some of these parents come home at night, drunk and high, they beat their children. When the kids don’t want to stay home, they get beaten more for not staying home. They’re being taught all these really awful values. They’re going to stay in the cycle of poverty and at the bottom of the ladder because the institutionalized racism in South Africa. You have to motivate them to be extraordinary or they are just going to stay poor in this community. You can just instill good values and try to motivate them to want to do something with their lives.
How did you find this internship?
Networking. My uncle lives in Evanston and his daughter had an au pair who lived with them for two years. I got to know her and she’s South African and this is her father’s organization. So she grew up at this church and her father’s the pastor who organizes this.
How did your expectations compare to your actual experiences on the ground?
Regarding HIV specifically, there are these drugs if you take them daily, you’ll live and they’re being provided free by the government. So we all think the problem is providing access to these drugs but in this community there is access to these drugs and some people are still not taking them. They’re being told, “you need to take these to save your life,” and for every reason you can think of, some people are not taking them and they’re dying. That’s just something that you don’t really hear about here.
Also, the institutionalized racism. Apartheid ended 22 years ago now and the area that we were staying in when we were studying in Stellenbosch is the most white, racist part of South Africa now. There is definitely still blatant racism there and it very hard to see.
I hope to go into medicine. I am going to take a year off and then try to go to medical school. I hope to get a Masters in Public Health while I get a Medical Degree. I’m also studying environmental science now and looking at the health aspect of environmental change. I think that during early college and high school, many people just think of becoming a surgeon and starting a practice. I definitely want to go beyond that and do more good through public health work. I also want to do more work abroad now.
Can you think of one moment that epitomizes your whole summer?
The most profound experience I had was getting to know one of the patients at the medical facility. This guy came in after a bike accident. He was sitting at the light and someone just hit him. He went into a coma and came out of it but was absolutely frozen in bed. He couldn’t really move his muscles or make any facial expressions. He could kind of, without moving his lips, mumble a little bit and say my name. His hands would shake and the nurses are always pretty busy and they deal with so much death all of the time that they kind of become accustomed to not becoming close to the patients. But I would go and hold his hands until they would stop shaking and became pretty close with this patient. Two to three weeks went by and he was getting worse. I thought he would probably die over the weekend. I left work Friday and when I came back Tuesday he had gotten new antibiotics and was talking and moving. By that Wednesday he was in a wheelchair, moving himself around, and I was having full conversations with him. It was just a crazy, moving experience.
So I took two things from that. One, I am not a very religious person but they do use faith in this facility a lot since it’s at a church. A lot of people in South Africa are very religious. Regardless of if I think it works or not, faith does seem to be helping the healing process for a lot of these patients. That was very eye opening to me. I don’t necessarily have to believe it but if it’s working well for others I may as well help with it. Second, through my kindness and the nurses’ kindness he was then inspired to come back and volunteer with the church once he’s healthy.
I ran into a lot of roadblocks with visas. While I was here doing research, I couldn’t figure out if I could get a visa and was getting a lot of push back from the administration. But I was pretty determined to stay over the summer and do it. I went to South Africa not totally sure if I would be able to stay but I figured out the system and it ended up working out. So don’t just let people tell you that you can’t do something. If you want to do it, really push it and try to weasel your way through things. It might work out!