By Wesley N. Saintilnord
I was born in a small city in the northeastern region of Haiti called Ouanaminthe (Ouanaminthe shares the border with the Dominican Republic). I will graduate in May 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in Biology with a focus on pre-medical studies. Upon graduation, I plan to work in a lab doing research for a year before I go to medical school.
“I was exposed to an environment of professionals, and patients, that have shaped my view about healthcare and inequalities, and most importantly have crafted my way of thinking about caring for patients with a holistic approach,” writes Saintilnord, Berea College 2016.
One year after my internship at the Regional Center for Infectious Disease (RCID) in North Carolina, I still vividly dream about various interactions that I had both with my mentors and the patients that were being cared for. My experience there reassured my interest in medicine, but most importantly helped me realize the call of providing healthcare for underserved populations.
Having been born and raised in Haiti, poverty and inequality are by no means foreign to me. Needless to say that my involvement with the Shepherd program and RCID was not my first glance at the inequalities that exist in the healthcare system. It, however, provided me with a broader understanding of what it means to be underserved the most powerful country on the planet and that disparity in healthcare is a worldwide phenomenon.
My first introduction to poverty and inequality issues in the United States began with Berea College. As the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, Berea, in its motto, “God has made of one blood of peoples of the earth,” receives students of various cultures, beliefs, and socio-economic status (mostly from impoverished communities). This integrated model of education provides a platform for justice and equality and an atmosphere where EVERYONE can have a quality education. Berea College may not have a consciously designed poverty studies program, but its focus on serving the less fortunate builds a rich and diverse environment whereby individuals can learn from one another. By virtual of its mission, it offers a myriad of general studies courses addressing identity and diversity in the US; social class and racial disparities. My “Sociology of Health” class, in particular, provided me with a foundation that was invaluable during my internship at RCID. One of the relevant assigned readings for this class was My own Country: A Doctor’s Story in which Dr. Verghese meticulously recounts his personal experiences during the early days of the HIV epidemic. His detailed writing came to life having worked closely with people of different backgrounds and social classes, giving me a deeper understanding of the parallel between poverty, social justice, and healthcare accessibility.
My aspiration to undertake a career in the medical field stems from my experience as a young high school student in Haiti. After the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, I was called on to translate for the Doctors without Borders Medical team thanks to the English skills that I had gained during a summer long ESL program in the United States during the previous year. This unfortunate natural disaster was a turning point in many Haitians lives, including mine. As I stood in emergency and operating rooms translating for doctors and patients, my interest in the medical field emerged. Following this dream, I entered college with the well-thought about decision that I would go to medical school. Seeking to reassure my interest, I desired to work alongside physicians and expose myself further to a clinical setting. I then applied to the Shepherd Program and was placed at the Regional Center for Infectious Disease (RCID) in Greensboro, NC shadowing infectious disease physicians for two months. As one of the few infectious disease centers in the region, RCID provides healthcare services to mostly HIV-positive individuals from a wide range of socio-economic status. This experience was very enriching as I learned not only about medicine but also about community and social support. I learned that living with HIV has become more than living with just with a chronic disease but a highly stigmatized one. As a result, social support and relational networks have become crucial in aiding individuals coping with life stress. They have become complementary to physical examinations of symptoms and diseases in terms of providing holistic care to individuals living with HIV.
My experience at RCID provided me with several real life examples of individuals dealing with the lack of social integration. During one of the support group meetings at Higher Ground, Mark, the HG director, told the group a story about a man who was disgraced by his pastor upon knowing that he was infected. One would think that going to church would be a safe place, but the “abominable sin of HIV infection” is not accepted in the eyes of some Christians. The man was told to never help with communion preparation anymore and was commanded to take the back seat at every service, which later resulted in him leaving the church. Although it is no longer the 1980s, the HIV-related stigmas are still evident in many communities. Individuals infected with HIV are seen as monsters, a source of shame for the community and as “sinners” who brought a plague on themselves. The HIV infected individuals deal not only with the physiological and physical downfall, but also with the psychological toll of being infected, which handicaps their well-being.
As I finish my last year of undergraduate and plan to have a year of medical research before I enter medical school, I will always remember the experiences that the Shepherd program provided me. Thanks to the program, I was exposed to an environment of professionals, and patients, that have shaped my view about healthcare and inequalities, and most importantly have crafted my way of thinking about caring for patients with a holistic approach.