Not long ago, in Jinja, Uganda, along the grassy, damp banks of the Nile, I sat with six fellows from Global Health Corps, the organization that I helped to found in 2008. Global Health Corps is dedicated to the premise that Health is a Human Right. We bring together diverse young professionals with deep passion and skills from inside and outside the health world to work in yearlong fellowships in Africa and the U.S. on the frontlines in the fight for global health equity. But on this afternoon, we had come to the river as countless others have done for centuries to tell stories. In African culture, storytelling is revered, and the storyteller is the one to impart not only lessons, but also inspiration. At age 30 or younger, none of us was as gifted as a practiced storyteller, but as we talked and the river breeze blew, the lessons of our stories were carried from person to person, around the circle.
Jacq, an independent and usually hilarious Ugandan, told of a moment that had transformed her life. She spoke of walking through a bare clinic in rural Uganda and seeing a woman lying on a bed covered by a beautiful blanket. The woman had come to the clinic to deliver a baby, but now she lay completely still, surrounded by blood, so much blood that it had spread across the beautiful blanket. She remembered being angry that nothing was being done for this woman--because nothing could be done. At that moment, she decided to do everything in her power to ensure other Ugandan women would be spared. In 2011, she joined Global Health Corps to serve with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation in Uganda, working to bring maternal health programs to Ugandan women.
Then another young woman spoke. She had begun her working life on Wall Street, but after two years, she "began to question what impact my work had in building towards goals I care about." At best, she said, the answer was no impact; at worst, she realized that from the safety of her desk, she could inadvertently be promoting inequality and irresponsible allocation of resources. She made a life-altering change and became a Global Health Corps fellow, helping to introduce rapid HIV diagnostic testing as part of the Clinton Health Access Initiative. She told us, "For too many lives and too many families, death is not a foregone conclusion, but a stupid consequence of broken public health systems. In a world of abundance, there is no reason someone should die of diarrhea in Tanzania or hemorrhage to death during childbirth in Uganda." There is not indeed.
Eventually, it was my turn. And so I told my story. In 2003, while I was still a college student, I traveled to Africa for the launch of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). One of our stops was Uganda, where I met a little girl whose mother had brought her to the launch ceremony. Looking at her, I guessed she was three. Though she was too weak to stand at the event, I assumed she was like any other three year old -- curious, independent-spirited, and loving. I later found out this girl was actually closer to seven and tiny, not because she was young, but because she was born HIV-positive in a place where, at the time, access to basic healthcare wasn't an option. I never knew the fate of this little girl - or if she even lived into the next year -- but I was struck by the overwhelmingly unfair fact that her life would have been drastically different had she been born just a couple of years later or in a different city in a different nation.
That day on the Nile, as the stories came full circle, I realized that each of us had taken a different path to arrive at the same destination: instead of becoming trapped by powerless situations, each of us had chosen to act, to do something about the injustices we had seen. All of us from a wide array of backgrounds and continents - a young, male computer scientist from Uganda, a Brazilian PhD student with a love for acting, a Nigerian mother with an MD, a communications specialist from California - were working together to ensure that every year, 500,000 women don't die needlessly from childbirth, and that, upon birth, every child has access to the healthcare she or he needs to live a full life. Partnering with non-profit and governmental organizations, we are committing our talents, skills, and passion to solving healthcare challenges. To that end, our fellows have built financial management systems for grassroots HIV organizations in Uganda, counseled homeless teenagers in New Jersey, supported district pharmacies in Rwanda in establishing new supply chain management tools, and conducted policy research in Washington, D.C.
On July 9, in partnership with Johnson & Johnson, Global Health Corps welcomed our newest class of 90 fellows at Yale University. Our fellows are writers, teachers, researchers, medical professionals, media professionals, musicians, actors, economists, journalists, statisticians, social entrepreneurs and more--but they are united in action to increase access to healthcare for women, children, and men around the world. Because every day I see young leaders choosing to act, I'm optimistic that soon we won't see needless death and suffering from preventable illnesses anywhere on earth.
Follow Global Health Corps at @GHCorps
Global Health Corps is dedicated to the premise that Health is a Human Right. We bring together diverse young professionals with deep passion and skills from inside and outside the health world to work in yearlong fellowships in Africa and the U.S. on the frontlines in the fight for global health equity.