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Students Pursue Health Research Abroad

Christiana Akins ’14
Christiana Akins ’14 with two patients she worked with at Nuestra Señora de La Esperanza in Costa Rica.

This past winter break 15 students received grants from the Dean Rusk International Studies Office and the Chaplain's Office to perform research, volunteer and explore personal interests abroad. Seven of those students chose to focus on health-related projects; three of the seven studied HIV/AIDS.

Becca Garman '14 spent 10 days in Copenhagen, Denmark, conducting research into how perceptions of people with HIV changed after the 2011 suspension of a statute in the Dutch penal code that recommended jail time for those who knowingly transmitted HIV.

"I love studying the complexities of the disease and its cultural stratifications," said Garman, who has examined perceptions of HIV in the United States, Morocco, South Africa and now Denmark.

While studying in Africa, Garman worked with low-income families and refugees with HIV whose primary concern was obtaining medicine. She encountered a very different situation in Copenhagen, where healthcare services are free, and the disease is more manageable-conditions that directly affect attitudes and health behaviors, Garman said. She fondly remembers conversations about cultural differences and stigmatization with the staff at the organization HIV Denmark.

"I found that in the United States there's more of an emphasis on religion and deviant behavior as the causes of HIV. However, in Denmark, because they teach responsible sex starting at a young age, people with HIV are seen as irresponsible and a burden to the healthcare system," she said.

A man walks down a street in Copenhagen carrying a rainbow umbrella, symbolic of the LGBTQ community—one of the at-risk groups for HIV/AIDS in Denmark.

Courses in anthropology, medical humanities and the course "Representations of HIV/AIDS" supplied Garman with the tools she needed to perform research, including cultural sensitivity. Her research will culminate in an independent study course and video that includes five interviews with anthropology professors and students, and employees of the AIDS Foundation and HIV Denmark.

A personal connection, rather than an academic interest, led Christiana Akins '14, to volunteer in Costa Rica at a home for those affected by the disease. Akins, who has a relative living with HIV, spent three weeks at Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza, where she fed and bathed patients.

"It was interesting to see their varying levels of ability," she said. "I felt very needed because, while there were patients who seemed perfectly healthy, two deaths occurred while I was there."

Akins was most touched by a man named Jorge who was HIV positive but took care of others and fervently prayed for those who were struggling.

"He made drawings and referred to one of a bird, gravestone and heart as ‘Mi Gran Amor,' revealing that he had lost his partner of 28 years to the disease," she said.

For her last semester Akins plans to take the course "Representations of HIV/AIDS," taught by professors Ann Fox and Dave Wessner, and said that after her experience in Costa Rica, she feels more confident about going out on her own after graduation.

Minisha Lohani '14 spent a month in Panama expanding her knowledge of cancer, leukemia and AIDS, and improving her Spanish. She volunteered at two organizations that focused on children: AID for AIDS International and Fundación Amigos de Niños con Lucemia y Cáncer.

"I wanted to see how these organizations created an atmosphere for children with diseases and learn what it means to be a child in Panama with a disease," she said.

Lohani noted that the healthcare system in Panama is very divisive between those with and without jobs, causing major financial barriers for the jobless in need of treatment.

"The foundation was a unique space because they had rooms where parents and children could stay for free during their treatment," she said. "They also received medicine and food and could easily access psychologists and doctors."

Lohani's main job was to entertain the children and create a supportive environment while the parents rested. She observed that, although the children knew what was going on, they appeared to be very happy.

In order to help patients in South America and here in the United States, Lohani recognizes the importance of Spanish fluency. "Spanish-speaking patients feel vulnerable when they're going to the hospital and feel more comfortable if they can communicate with the doctor," she said. "This experience improved my medical vocabulary and my understanding of the patient-doctor relationship."