Quito Project Global Health 2006 Essay Competition
In Chillogallo, a village of less than 4,000 located in Quito, Ecuador, sickness, alcoholism and hunger prosper. Children are poorly-educated, malnourished and often abused, and parents struggle to make a decent living. Families are forced to live in dirt-covered homes with only one room.
This is the picture University of Michigan physicians and students were faced with and ultimately motivated by when they arrived in Quito last summer to begin a three-month-long volunteer project. The Quito Project — led by then-fourth-year medical student Bina Valsangkar — sent U-M medical students, physicians, nurses, social workers and others to Quito, to provide medical treatment, tutor children and construct community facilities.
To inspire and motivate other students from a variety of areas of study, and to increase their awareness of issues relating to global health, the Quito Project sponsored an essay contest for U-M undergraduates prior to the group’s trip to Quito in 2006. The winning essay, by then-senior Derek Cheng, appears below.
I am an ignorant college student. I am ignorant to the global health issues that affect countries outside of our own, not because I do not care to glance at the international section of the news or spend a few minutes skimming through a front page headline on the avian flu pandemic. No, I am ignorant because I cannot seem to do anything about it because it does not seem to touch to me — and I am not alone in saying this. Simply put, I feel that many Americans live in small bubbles. And we do. It is not mandatory for us to fly over to Rwanda, Malawi, or Somalia each weekend to support humanitarian relief efforts. So why should we bother to care? I have never met a young child suffering from malnutrition, filariasis, or schistosomiasis. The issues that really seem to affect me are mere side-effects of luxuries, such as having exams to study for, bitter anxieties on a visit to the dentist, or an argument with housemates over cleaning dishes. Perhaps you have traveled to a developing country mangled with political turmoil, seen disease, starvation, and have donated countless hours to better the lives of others. Well if you are one of those people, this message is not for you. This message is for people like me, who do not necessarily recognize global health issues; who have a hard time grasping their relations to us, and do not do anything about them. What I mention, in feeling and grasping the direct connection, is the solution. It is the spark that can ignite an effective response to the structural forces of global health issues.
What exactly is global health? It is a simple question that elicits such complex responses. If this were written in 1918, I could have easily told you about the state of global health — that we were all affected and doomed by the Spanish-influenza that wiped out more than 500,000 Americans, and infected one third of the world’s population. The problem is that no one cares about anything when nothing seems apparent — again, that missing connection. Thankfully, most of us have not been directly affected by SARS, bio-terrorism, or the avian flu just yet. However, when I think about what global health stands for, I start to realize that it is much more than the common assumption. The truth is, global health issues are not limited to developing countries or mortifying diseases we cannot pronounce. They hit all countries regardless of their socioeconomic background, including the United States. For example, according to the World Health Organization, over 1 billion adults are overweight, a true epidemic that is related to cardiovascular disease as being the number one killer of Americans. Tied in with body fat, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension are projected to be a primary concern for India and Middle Eastern countries in 2025, as well as China, Latin America and the Caribbean. It is rarely discussed as an epidemic when in fact, it truly is.
Even after realizing the ubiquity of health issues, it takes more to influence someone. It might take a real life experience for someone to realize their compassion for others. A good friend of mine traveled to Hong Kong last summer for an intended vacation, until he came down with a high fever that landed him in a foreign hospital. He was suspected of having an Asian bird flu which left him quarantined for two weeks — a short time by many standards. According to him, he was mortified by the diseased patients he was placed with, and he felt the desperation that one might feel without proper medical treatment. After being cleared and arriving back to the United States, he was changed. There was a noticeable change in his outlook towards humanitarian relief and his willingness to be involved. But does this mean that many of us need to experience firsthand, the dire health issues that we see on television in order to make that initial connection? For some it might. For others, the mere change in attitude about health issues at home will be enough. What we can all do is to take that first initiative, and to be the connection. This might be in volunteering, donating, or simply discussing the matters at hand. It may lead us down a path of rewarding experiences that make life more meaningful. It might not. It is then up to us to see for ourselves whether we are truly ignorant or not.
Derek Cheng, a 2006 graduate of the University of Michigan in English Language and Literature, was involved in the U-M Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program as an assistant researcher in pediatric anesthesiology at the U-M C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.