Promoting Public Health Page 2
ach week, the doctor and I would travel to different villages to administer vaccinations such as Hepatitis B and Polio to children. We glided over the smooth waters of the Caroní River in a hollow tree-trunk boat to speed our travels. Each vaccination day at these villages was unforgettable. Dr. Sambrano, since he was more familiar with Pemon names, went through the paperwork, leaving me to administer the shots. All the children and adults stood in a circle and watched me prepare the vaccinations. The first child to receive an injection sat down, expressionless, not knowing what to expect. As soon as I vaccinated him, he began to cry uncontrollably from the pain of the needle puncturing his skin. At that moment, the look on the face of every other child watching was priceless. Their expressions instantly changed from timid curiosity to frozen fear. I noticed that the older boys tried hard not to cry in order to maintain appearances in front of the other children and adults. After giving the shots, we distributed candy to the children. Hopefully, this small token will prevent them from associating Asian people with pain for the rest of their lives.
In order to give me a more diverse experience, Dr. Sambrano arranged for me to leave Urimán and work in a different medical clinic in Wonken, another village in southern Venezuela far removed from any city. There, I would assist Dr. Ana Mata, a friend and colleague of Dr. Sambrano's, who is in charge of her own ambulatory.
Yongjun and Dr. Sambrano travelled on the Caroní River to the surrounding communities.
The day before I left, I visited many of the Pemón villagers whom I had befriended so that I could say goodbye. One of my visits was to the Captain of the Pemón indigenous villagers of Urimán. He asked me what I could do to help the village and when I was coming back. I was taken aback by the question. At that point, I had not considered coming back. It was at that moment that I began to understand the gravity of the problems facing the villagers. The man standing before me would never leave Urimán. The Pemón people would not stop getting malaria. The children would remain hungry. I knew I had helped Dr. Sambrano in the ambulatory, but that suddenly seemed trivial. Even if Dr. Sambrano were provided with the equipment he needs to take care of the villagers, he would only have the capacity to treat the symptoms of the underlying health problems. I realized that the only way to truly help Urimán would be to find ways to address these long-term concerns. For the next month in Wonken, I often thought about the question that the Captain of Urimán had asked me, and I began to ask myself what I could do.
An enormous tepui rock formation overlooks Wonken. The village is far more advanced than Urimán economically and has fewer deep-seated health problems. After exploring the question of why Wonken is relatively more developed, I learned that the city is at a higher altitude than Urimán. For this reason, the types and general numbers of mosquito species actively transmitting malaria are lower. Along with a significantly lower number of malaria patients, Wonken has a successful school and agricultural program. Dr. Mata and I concluded that the health disparities are at least partly due to these factors.
The tepui rock formation behind this home overlooks Wonken.
In Wonken, the number of patients in the ambulatory seemed much more manageable. The clinic itself is better funded, and there are nurses to help Dr. Mata. Although I still helped in the ambulatory, I had much more time to think about Urimán and develop plans for what I could do to help. Each idea that I came up with was immediately crushed by my own doubts of whether or not I, as a college student, could manage such an ambitious, complex project. Would it be feasible to run a waste management program, a health education project, or an agricultural project? How many other students would I need, where would I get funding, and how long would all of this take?
Before I returned to the United States, I met with the health director in charge of the medical clinics in southern Venezuela, as well as presidents of various energy firms and mining companies that have been benefactors for startup projects in rural villages. All of the people with whom I spoke encouraged me to follow through with my ideas. As soon as I arrived back at Swarthmore, I spoke to my peers, professors, and administrators about Urimán, and tried my best to describe the entire experience. I felt that I needed to form a student committee as soon as possible to open up my ideas for criticism and further development.
Together with a few friends, I have created an organization, Pemón Health, which will serve to promote the cause of Uriman and other struggling Pemón villages. One of the organization's goals is to design an internship program for college students that will offer a similar experience to the one that I had last summer. The purpose of this internship program is to begin to address the health problems that plague other regions by exposing college students to these important issues.
Yongjun hopes to return to Urimán this summer under the auspices of Pemón Health.
In addition, this summer I hope to return to Urimán with a few members of Pemón Health to try and work with local leaders to implement basic health projects. Included in our current plans is the proposal to create an incentive-based waste management program that will reverse the effects of pollution in and around Urimán. This pollution has caused a great deal of water contamination and ecosystem degradation that has adversely affected the health of Pemón villagers. We will live in Urimán for at least one year after graduation to continue this work so that we may implement other development projects that focus on preventative medicine and health.
Not one day goes by without my thinking about Urimán. Living among the Pemón indigenous people has allowed me to better understand how poverty, education, and healthcare are intertwined. Although billions of people all around the world face similar problems as those found in Urimán, I believe that every improvement that can be made should be made, however small.
Over the last five months of planning this project, Pemón Health has received a great deal of support from Swarthmore faculty and students. This support has allowed us to begin formulating plans that will hopefully bring real changes to the people of Urimán. I would like to thank Eugene Lang '38, Stephen Penrose '66, Pat James, Debra Kardon-Brown, the 2007 S2A2 Selection Committee, Rick Valelly '75, Mimi Sheller, Juan Victor Fajardo '09, Familia Gomez, Andres Pacheco '09, Simon Sambrano, and Ana Mata for making this all possible.