Every single one of my experiences abroad took me further into the world of global health – Global Health Alumni Interview with Julia Harris (2007, WCAS)

Name: Julia Harris (2007, WCAS)
Major: Anthropology (Human Biology)
Minor: Global Health

What did you do after graduation and where are you now?

Julia during her 3rd year clerkship at Soroka University Medical Center in Beer Sheva, Israel

I graduated in 2007 with a degree in Anthropology (Human Biology) and a minor in Global Health. I was pre-med, but I was not sure exactly what I wanted to do. I took the MCAT after my junior year and managed to get out a few med school applications right before I graduated. I knew that if I didn’t do the apps while in an academic environment I would never apply. What was more important to me at the time was to attempt to really work in some capacity in the global health world. So, I went to Brazil. I was born there and have a Brazilian passport, so I was able to get an internship at the National School of Public Health. I had an amazing experience. I split my time between research and shadowing a doctor who was doing a residency in public health. Public health is not a residency option in many countries; in American terms it’s a bit like family medicine mixed with an MPH. The public health residents ran a clinic located in the School of Public Health which serviced the low income communities who live in favelas surrounding the campus. In working at this clinic I had the opportunity to see the implementation of a primary care focused public health care system from multiple angles. I saw the process from policy making, to home visits and even clinical medicine. It was a phenomenal experience that really tied together the knowledge base I gained in undergrad and made me realize I really wanted to be a physician. I felt my inadequacies. I wanted a distinct skill set that could allow me to better serve the population and I decided I could do this best through the pursuit of an MD. It’s a great day when you suddenly know what you want to do, even if you know it’s going to take a lifetime to get there.

I was accepted to the Medical School for International Health while I was living in Brazil. This school is a 4-year American style medical school located in the deserts of southern Israel and was established in association with Columbia University. I graduate on May 23rd, 2012 and will be working as resident physician in Obstetrics and Gynecology in Philadelphia at Drexel University’s Hahnemann Hospital.

Just a quick plug, cause I love my med school and it really is the perfect place to go if you want to go into medicine and global health all at once. My med school integrates a global health perspective into its curriculum and allowed me the opportunity to go to other countries such as India and Ethiopia to work in hospitals in a variety of interesting settings. Additionally, the day to day life here in Beer Sheva, Israel is quite diverse. The population served by our tertiary care center (where we study) is 50% Arabic speaking, predominately Bedouin. The other 50% is made up of immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia, refugees from Sudan and of course the Jewish population.

Which IPD program did you choose for your studies abroad and how has it influenced you?

While at Northwestern I studied abroad a few times, all along the lines of global health. I went on the Northwestern global health program to Mexico City the summer after freshman year. This really opened the doors for me. I was exposed to public health research, I shadowed doctors in a clinical setting, and I lived on my own in a foreign country for the first time. I had such an awesome time and realized that I could really pursue global health as an undergrad. This experience inspired me to continue to go abroad. In the summer after sophomore year I went to Buenos Aires to study Spanish and do a research internship at a public hospital. Then I went to South Africa on a global health SIT trip for the fall semester. During this trip I got involved in HIV/AIDS education and decided to return to South Africa to do my senior thesis. I was lucky enough to get an Undergraduate Research Grant (URG) which made the whole trip possible. Northwestern has so many opportunities for students who are interested in global health, as long as you are personally motivated people will get behind you and help you run after whatever dream you have (within reason).

Every single one of my experiences abroad took me further into the world of global health. There are so many lessons to learn from cultural sensitivity (trust me I have committed every faux pas) to one’s own limitations in language, in academics, and personal boundaries. Every time I put myself out of my comfort zone I learned so much about myself. I became totally addicted to the thrill of landing somewhere completely new and having to figure it out. I also loved learning about a country through its health care system. Working in the health care field allows you a certain intimacy with people that perhaps we do not deserve. For instance as a physician I have been able to enter peoples’ lives, peoples’ homes and through them I have been exposed to such amazing cultures, languages and life lessons. However, I must say as a disclaimer two very important things. Firstly, I have learned that one does not need to leave the US to accomplish what I just described. It is completely possible to experience a diversity of cultures in the US. There are people lacking access to health care and good health care policies everywhere in the world. The second disclaimer I have to offer is that despite my training I am not sure I am the person to bring health to the world. No matter how culturally sensitive you attempt to be, walking into a clinic somewhere in a developing country you will never have all of the skills to truly understand the culture of those you are treating. That being said I do think that global health leads to an amazing and fulfilling life and career no matter how you approach it, I just think that one has to be realistic. It’s great to want to change the world and help people but know your limitations and be humble. I will relate a small story to express what exactly I mean to say.

What’s one life lesson that you have learned since you started working?

Julia taking blood pressure of a woman in a rural town in central India called Bhidi, where she was running a clinic during her 4th year elective

I had the opportunity to do an elective in rural India during my last year of medical school. I was shocked by what I saw. I felt that the Hippocratic Oath was being ignored left and right because the best medicine, which I had learned to administer was not being practiced. The innumerate barriers that existed to giving what I believed to be appropriate eventually revealed themselves. One day a man was brought in bleeding from a motor vehicle accident. My med school colleague and I were the only ones trained in CPR and we did our best while surrounded by a crowd of screaming villagers to save this patient. We then jumped in a van “ambulance” and continued our CPR while standing and travelling over 120 kilometers per hour towards the nearest tertiary care center. We were not successful. I was so angry about the lack of CPR training and the prevalence of such situations that necessitated it. Then I realized that the cost of training a nation in a technique that is overwhelmingly not successful and often results in a patient with great medical needs may not be financially beneficial. If I were the minister of health in India I may decide that investing in CPR is not my biggest priority or an efficient investment of the limited funds available.

Do you have any advice or suggestions for current global health students on how to get involved or how to choose their career path in global health?

I have loved the great majority of my international life for the past 9 years but there are ethical debates every day that I have with myself. I attempt to abide by the Hippocratic Oath and do no harm to those I have the privilege of treating or working with. However, despite my plethora of global health training I will on occasion do wrong. I will give patients treatments that do not mesh with their cultural or religious beliefs or I will accidently say things that offend and alienate my patients or colleagues. If you choose to work in global health I think it is best to remember that you are a guest in someone else’s world and it is your duty to learn from your hosts in addition to lending a hand.

If you want a career in global health you have to make it happen. Spend time finding a place, a project or a community that really inspires you and go. There are always people who need or want volunteers but if you want to really make a career in global health it involves a long term commitment, stepping out of your comfort zone and finding the right people who can open doors for you. It is always best to find an expat or an English-speaking person who has made his/her life as a foreigner successfully integrated into wherever it is you are trying to go. The right contact can be everything. OK that’s all I got, the rest is just a little bit of luck and a lot of perseverance.

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