Mary is a second year MPH student in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics with a concentration in Global Health. Mary received the Passaro Global Horizon Scholarship, assistance from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and UIC Urban Health program to fund her practicum in Ghana during the summer of 2016. Mary worked with an organization called Unite For Sight to provided free vision care and eye restoring surgeries for residents in rural Ghana. Her responsibilities on the field included recording patient information, performing visual acuity tests, dispensing medication and eyeglasses as prescribed by the local doctors, and coordinating referrals for surgeries. In addition to these, she used a tool provided by UFS to survey mothers and explored the association between maternal perceptions of child eye problems and non-receipt of eye care in the life of their children.
A previous student had told Mary about her volunteer work with UFS in Ghana which got her interested in volunteering but she never had found the opportunity to do it. The MPH practicum requirement provided Mary the opportunity to do something that she had been interested in while satisfying her requirements for school. Mary was also eligible to apply for scholarships to fund her experience.
In what ways did you prepare for your global practicum?
I learned and familiarized myself with the language and culture of some of the communities I was going to work in. These helped me to be mindful of pitfalls and avoid being too intrusive when I surveyed patients for my study. I also shadowed and trained with doctors for skills that enabled me to effectively assist with work on the site. Unite for Sight courses also provided the necessary background information to understand and recognize various eye diseases.
What was the most valuable thing you learned through your global professional experience?
I learned about the importance of sustaining programs so that impacts are maximized over a long period of time and not just at an instant or short time frame. Secondly, I learned that to ensure the continued success of a program, it is utterly important to involve the community e.g. local doctors in planning and decision-making. Lastly, results of any research performed in a community should be communicated back to the community for their benefit and improvement.
How did this experience prepare you for work in public health?
This experience provided the opportunity to apply skills essential for a career in public health. Through my research, I was able to attain IRB approval, apply survey techniques in collecting data on the site, employ epidemiological methods in analyzing collected data and disseminate results of my study through oral and poster presentations at conferences. Additionally, my practicum exposed me to the realities of health care delivery in resource-limited environments. I learned how to make do with limited resources and effectively deliver healthcare services amidst language and cultural barriers. I learned how complex global health problems are managed using financial and human resources.
How did your perspectives or worldview change as a result of this experience?
The crowds of varying ages who attended UFS outreaches each day was baffling. This made the extent of vision problems evident and further emphasized the need for eye care in Ghanaian communities. I was impressed by how local doctors worked around the clock to care for patients. They worked until the last patient had been seen during outreaches and some surgery days went on until about 11pm, when over 50 patients, some bilateral, had received cataracts surgeries. This was amazing! I was also impressed with the community effort in keeping UFS outreach programs sustainable. I had previously wondered, “What are they doing to help themselves” and was happy to have witnessed a whole team working to reduce the global burden of blindness and vision impairment.
In what ways did this experience enhance or change your career goals?
My practicum experience definitely gave me the feeling of being part of something meaningful and has reinforced my interests in global health, public health, and vision health. This is because I got hands-on experience in applying public health principles to blindness prevention in a global setting The impact of cataracts surgeries was almost immediate that along with patients, I could appreciate the outcome. The best part for me was to witness patients look around as if it was their first time seeing and grateful for the gift of sight.