As I write this, I am currently performing rare disease research in Durban, part of the Kwa-Zulu Natal province of South Africa. This region suffers from some of the highest rates in the world of a disease called juvenile-
, recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (JoRRP). My goal for this trip originally included simply gathering data on all patients with JoRRP in the region over the past 10 years. Now, after the experiences we have had with patients and the knowledge we have gained from their stories, the goal has changed. We hope to show the true breadth of this epidemic and assist in the motivation for wider-spectrum HPV vaccination to help dramatically diminish the burden of disease on these families.
As I meet these patients, most of them scared children with mothers who feel their children’s hardship is due to their own wrongdoings, the one thing I can offer them, no matter what the case, is compassion. As I transplanted here for only a summer, I could never understand what they were going through. Though if we are diligent and thoughtful, then maybe I can make sure the research completed while I am there works towards a future where things are different.
During our time here, not only have we gained ground on the JoRRP epidemiology project, but we have been able to transform three other research projects with our expertise and experience. These projects include a demographic study on total laryngectomies with bilateral neck dissection, a comparative case-control study on COVID-19 and complicated sinusitis, and a pilot study surrounding global surgery and medical student inclusion. These interactions epitomize the importance of global health—collaboration between like-minded individuals who care about humanity.
In addition to our research, we have been included in teaching discussions with medical residents, aided in clinical proceedings with JoRRP clinics, collaborated as a part of multi-disciplinary team discussions, scrubbed in on surgeries, seen advanced disease only present in low-income countries, and experienced global colleague relationships that will truly last a lifetime. Being a doctor in a developing nation is no easy feat – high burden of disease, advanced disease, sub-par resources, low monetary compensation, long hours. The South African doctors we met joined this noble profession knowing all these barriers would impact their abilities but pledged to do their best anyway and never complained. Being a future doctor in one of the most privileged health care systems in the world, it is only my duty to assist them as a good global citizen.
Our mentors, Dr. Julia Toman and Dr. Zachary Porterfield, have dedicated substantial portions of their career to global medicine. Both were motivated by experiences in their training, showing the power of mentorship. Doctors Toman and Porterfield routinely travel to the forgotten corners of the world, using their impressive educations to teach, propel research, and practice medicine. They leave their families, friends, and academic positions to do so, and ask nothing in return.
The endless kindness and generosity of these doctors is inspirational to me in a way that is impossible to describe. The fervor with which I will study medicine for the next chapter of my life will forever be enhanced by the experiences I have had this summer. Knowing that people like them care about and change the lives of the people of this world inspires me to want to make a similar impact.
“In this increasingly interconnected world, we must understand that what happens to poor people is never divorced from the actions of the powerful.” – Dr. Paul Farmer