I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to describe the experiences I had when I was away. People talk about traveling, and the impact it has on your life, and you don’t believe them until you actually have that transformation yourself. You grow up in the comfort of your own country with people that mostly look like you and act like you. For my personal childhood, these people were pretty homogenous to me – in appearance and ideology. When I went to college I realized how much I appreciated learning from other cultures and from people that think differently than myself; I adored meeting those people and developed an appreciation for our differences. This December, I seriously sat down with my dad and asked if I could travel abroad for a Maymester. Going out of the country, admittedly, scared me. After some convincing and coercing, I was given blessings to go to Ireland and England. I would be studying public health of three countries and was ecstatic to learn of an area of healthcare I was less familiar with. The spring semester came with its challenges of exams, family life, a new research job, and college in general but before long I had finished my second year of college and was packing to travel across the pond. I can admit that I really had no idea what I was getting myself into – and that is part of the beauty of it all.
It is overwhelming to think of how to write about my experiences. I couldn’t possibly try to start from the beginning to the end, and I’m kicking myself for not keeping a journal going throughout my journey abroad. Truthfully though, I was going pretty much nonstop and would cherish the few hours of sleep I would get each night. I didn’t find time to write. When I think about what I learned on this trip, so much comes to mind. I’ve decided to just write of my experiences as I think of them – so my first one is below!
I feel very deeply that my experiences abroad will make me a better future doctor. Public health is concerned with the health of the masses – not the privileged, or the wealthy, or the exceptional, but of every man and every woman that is deserving of health. A public health perspective is not focused on individual treatment but on ensuring health opportunity for every person. This means that the woman in poverty with a newborn child is just as deserving of health as the wealthy businessman with a nice sportscar. On the first three days of our trip, I learned about the public health infrastructure in the United States, Tennessee, and Nashville. The Commissioner of Health for Tennessee spoke with passion about healthcare for all, not just in the states, but globally. He spoke of not just improving health but health equity. I learned of government programs that aim to improve the health of vulnerable populations – women with children, the impoverished, elderly people, people in rural populations. I observed with excitement the earnest desire that our public health professionals have to alleviate disease and illness and ensure health for all people. I walked the streets of Nashville with a nonprofit organization and talked to people living in homelessness – people I had often passed. I learned of how homeless people are even more susceptible to mental and physical disease than those that have a place to rest their heads. My heart became more compassionate, more understanding, and more heartbroken for the lack of systems we have to care for people that need it most. I thought of how homeless people were stigmatized and criminalized. What I realized most was my own attitude towards them. People – despite color, wealth, social status, illness, or any other factors – are just people at their core. They share the same anatomy, the same biochemistry happening inside their bodies, the same capacity for illness, the same emotional vulnerabilities. People are people, and sometimes as a society, we don’t treat them that way. People are stigmatized for mental illnesses, HIV/AIDS or other STIs, disabilities, and a menagerie of other diseases. In my own country, I noted these discrepancies. As I traveled overseas, I had lectures on public health in the UK and in Ireland. The same problems exist elsewhere, but I do feel these countries have developed more inclusive health systems. Without getting into the (complicated) details of the healthcare systems across the pond, the UK has a single-payer system that is funded through tax dollars and offers coverage to all citizens. The UK also ranks #1 among healthcare delivery, accessibility, quality, and timeliness; unfortunately, they rank second-to-last in health outcomes (second only to the United States). So, of course, the UK has its problems in improving the health of populations but at least has developed a sophisticated and inclusive (for the most part) healthcare system. Ireland has a much more convoluted healthcare system that has a public component where all citizens get a medical card they use to get public healthcare, and a private component where paying citizens can get private insurance and faster healthcare services. Interestingly, the public healthcare services are more desired than the private because of more extensive expertise in the public hospitals. Nonetheless, all of this healthcare talk is really exciting to me and something I want to be more involved in but probably boring for everyone else… The culmination of my experiences abroad lead me to realize that whether or not you believe healthcare is a right or a privilege – you have to believe that health is a right. Every person is entitled to living a healthy, happy life, free of disease and illness, free of disability, and free of pain. The unfortunate truth is that many people don’t live lives that way now and may never live that way. In my future practice as a doctor, I hope to work to ensure my patients have the best medical care with their optimized health always in my mind. I will value my patients as people with equality and integrity – no matter their race, background, income, homelessness, religious belief, or language barriers. I learned much more on my trip (like where the best pubs are in Ireland and where to get the best Americano in London) but of course this was the important, overarching theme that I wanted to write about first. I will forever be thankful for my travels abroad and hope to write of (perhaps more exciting?) experiences soon!