A life education

Written by Sarah Wishloff, BA candidate at Amherst College and alumna of the Summer Research Program- Public & Global Health Track

My first day of work, I was sent to the Muloza clinic in the Mulanje district of Southern Malawi, a couple hours’ drive from the St. Louis Nutrition Project’s home-base in the commercial center of Blantyre. When we arrived at the clinic site, there were over twenty mothers with children waiting to be seen, many of whom had travelled miles from neighboring Mozambique just to receive our study’s therapeutic food. While I waited anxiously for the English volunteer to explain the clinic’s operating protocol, and how to determine degrees of malnourishment from arm-circumference measurements, a Malawian woman silently held her infant up to me for screening. I was overwhelmed.

I originally applied for the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program out of an interest in global health, and a desire to gain hands-on field experience and knowledge regarding the implementation and design of clinical studies. While the program gave me a better sense of professional direction and helped me refine my broad interests in healthcare, it also had a profound impact on me personally.

Sarah at Chikonde clinic site, enjoying freshly cut sugar cane.
Sarah at Chikonde clinic site, enjoying freshly cut sugar cane.

Throughout my time as an undergraduate pre-medical student, I struggled with imposter syndrome. Who was I to try to make a difference in the world? Who was I to pursue a field as important as global health, and to succeed? Over the course of the summer, I grew the most by listening to the women of Malawi—the nurses, healthcare aides, mothers, and village chiefs who, often without recognition, served as leaders in their communities. They taught me through their actions about embodied confidence, a kind of non-clichéd self-assurance that is worn exclusively in the interests of improving the lives of others. These women were radically un-swayed by adversity. And while global health so often focuses on the big picture of international networks and big data, I saw these women making the greatest difference working at the community level.

It was Patricia, a proud Malawian mother of three, aspiring nurse, and healthcare aide who came to my rescue on my first day of work—grabbing the infant’s arm and instructing me to examine the child for signs of edema—and who, throughout the summer, encouraged me to confidently pursue my passions.

Now, I continue to pursue a career in global health and am currently working as a monitoring and evaluations fellow for Aga Khan Health Services in Khorog, Tajikistan. Following Patricia’s example, I try to continually push the limits of what I am capable of, and strive to live with both self-assurance and selflessness.