The sign above our destination is faded, red letters in Sanskrit worn with time. The walls are a light rose with health posters lining the walls, some with diagrams, others long lines of text. As we climb the stairs, every person turns to look in our direction, and as we meet their gaze, their hands press together in a prayer, a quiet “Namaste” and a smile upon every face. Some are slight grins, others wide smiles flashing teeth. Even when we know no common tongue, a smile in any shape or form is universal.
We are ushered into a small room, many women seated already. It is clear we are outsiders. We look different, from our features to our clothing to our mannerisms, but still, these women go out of their way to welcome us with greetings and smiles. Not once do we feel we are intruders because they do everything possible to make us feel welcome and as if we always belonged here. Small cups of coffee are passed to everyone, and the meeting begins.
These Female Health Care Volunteers are unpaid anchors of the Nepali health care system. Every woman is responsible for 1500 residents and is the first line of care for the majority of people. They are health educators who teach others about vaccines and nutrition, but the fact remains that they are unpaid. These women go beyond what it means to be a healthcare provider when they are also students, mothers, and workers. The training center we are seated in is a contact point for the health volunteers. They serve in the local municipality within the Kaski district, going to residents’ homes to promote everything from hygiene to immunizations to prenatal visits. Every month, the women meet at this training center for a progress report. From this center, data is sent to urban health centers to be compiled for a national reporting system.
After introductions, a middle-aged woman stands. Although her stature is unassuming, her voice commands attention, powerful and unflinching as she declares her position and her concerns. Even when we cannot understand a single word of her speech, her passion rings clear. To us, she bares her soul, and our coordinator, Mr. Sharma, has trouble keeping up with her rapid speech to translate.
She is a senior citizen, a volunteer for 22 years, keeping watch over her community. Her primary concern is not payment for their services, but to be acknowledged for their work so they can receive more responsibilities. They desire more diagnostic tools such as thermometers and blood pressure cuffs and more medications, because they are the first line of health care for many Nepalese. What they want is to do more so they can improve and save more lives. Recently, the volunteers have achieved a great distinction for their municipality — a 100% immunization rate, as well as zero current cases of malaria or dengue fever.
Even when we depart, the volunteers are all smiles. They huddle together with us to take a group photo, and many of the volunteers pull out their cell phones to have photos saved. I can’t help but wonder what we offered these amazing women, but I know the stories they shared with us will last for a lifetime.
The Master of Science in Global Medicine program at the Keck School of Medicine offers study abroad opportunities three times each year, with offerings available on four continents. To find out more about study abroad opportunities and all that the Master of Science in Global Medicine has to offer, click here.