The bravest decision I ever made: a summer of SCA research in Uganda

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Jeannette George, a Nursing and International Studies (CLAS) major with an emphasis in African studies, has been studying at the University of Iowa since 2009. Last summer, she made the life-changing decision to pursue her academic research of Sickle Cell Anemia awareness far beyond her UI classrooms. Here is her reflection on her research, her decision to travel to Uganda, and why she will never regret it.

Jeannette GeorgeHaving grown up in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the poorest countries in the world, my family could not afford vacationing or traveling anywhere. Very rarely, my parents managed to send my siblings and me on short trips to visit my grandparents and other relatives. It was not until 1996, at the age of nine, that I experienced traveling to another country. We went to Tanzania in East Africa. At such a young age, I was not able to fully understand what it meant to have the chance to travel to another country and experience life there. Now that I am older, I understand exactly what that means. I have been very fortunate during my college career here at the University of Iowa to have had the opportunity to study abroad in several countries, including India, the United Kingdom, the Gambia, and, most recently, Uganda.

UgandaWhen I first designed my research project to explore the knowledge, attitude and beliefs of those affected by Sickle Cell Anemia (SCA), I knew Uganda was the place to go. According to a 2011 study by the World Health Organization, the prevalence of the sickle cell anemia trait is 45% in Uganda compared to 10-40% in other East- African countries and with over 25,000 infants born with SCA every year, the disease contributes 16.2% of all child mortality in Uganda. The objective of my research project was to provide evidence-based information and knowledge about SCA that would help answer questions about how best to implement culture-specific interventions for preventing and managing SCA.

Before leaving for Uganda, I was very nervous. In the past, I had always traveled abroad with my family, other students and/or professors. But this time I was going to be alone. As the travel date approached, I became increasingly anxious about the journey; but I knew going to Uganda was something that I absolutely wanted to do, so I went and I am glad I did.

Jeannette George with childDuring my 12-week experience in Uganda, I worked at Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital (MRRH), in a town called Mbarara. I worked in the pediatric unit, which admits over 8,000 patients, including some patients from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. I interviewed parents about their knowledge and understanding of their children’s disease and healthcare providers on their perceptions of the knowledge gap between parents and healthcare providers, disease prevention and management, and SCA resource availability. Although the transcription and analysis of my study is not yet complete, I observed a significant knowledge gap between healthcare providers and parents of children with sickle cell disease. I saw the need for policymakers in Mbarara, and Uganda as a whole, to develop sickle cell disease awareness and management programs. This will help reduce the stigma of the disease and as well as increase the knowledge about the disease among people in different communities.

Jeannette George My experience in Uganda was exactly what I had imagined and much more. When I got there, I completely immersed myself in this entirely new cultural setting (and a new lifestyle in general). This allowed me to get to know the culture, the people, and the environment in which I was living. As a naïve and an unexperienced individual, I spent many years of my life thinking that cultural differences are just differences in language, food, appearances, and personal habits when they are so much more than that. Through my experiences abroad, I learned that there are other things like morals, values, traditions, and beliefs that make us different from other people, and unless we learn to appreciate and respect each other’s social customs pertaining to culture, we will never truly understand or respect one another. Also, spending 12 weeks working alongside healthcare providers who have the same amount of knowledge and experience as Western healthcare providers, but earn at least 12 times less, and living around people who survive on less than a dollar a day, allowed me to experience first-hand some of the Ugandan people’s life perceptions, beliefs, and values.

Jeannette GeorgeThrough my attempt to take advantage of everything that Uganda had to offer, I also did some really fun and cool things, including attending a Ugandan style bridal shower and wedding; going on safari at the Queen Elizabeth National Park; spending weekends in different regions of the country (Kampala, Entebbe, Kasese); and traveling to neighbor countries, including Kenya and Tanzania.

Uganda took me completely out of my element and placed me in a place where I was not comfortable at all. This enabled me to look at life through a different lens and helped me to learn new way of thinking and living. As I mentioned earlier, my decision to go to Uganda was probably one of the most spontaneous and craziest decisions I have made, but it was also one of the bravest, if not the bravest decision I have ever made.

Jeannette’s trip abroad was made possible through a Cmiel Internship Award from the UI Center for Human Rights and a Stanley Undergraduate Award for International Research. The Stanley award is given annually to outstanding University of Iowa undergraduates for the pursuit of learning activities in international studies that are not available on the UI campus.

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