Future of Public Health: Teresa Marx

Sep 3, 2013, 1:21 PM

Teresa Marx Teresa Marx

As part of a new series exploring the future of public health in conversations with public health students and emerging leaders, NewPublicHealth caught up with rising senior at DePaul University, Teresa Marx, who gained valuable hands-on experience in global health through her service trip with Global Brigades.

Marx signed up to travel to Ghana with Global Brigades, the world’s largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization. Through this program, teams of students and professionals work with communities in under-resourced regions to improve the quality of life while respecting local cultures. Global Brigades programs provide students with the opportunities to work with architecture, business, dental, environmental, human rights, medical, microfinance, public health and water awareness and development during their trips. Marx returned to the United States with the conviction that the public health aspects of her experience were the most valuable and held the most potential for impact on the local communities. Marx is a communication studies major and African Black Diaspora minor at DePaul, where she also hosts and produces a weekly radio show. In addition to her service trip to Ghana, she has also served as a counselor at AmeriCorps Camp Versity, where she developed daily activities for at-risk children and adolescents that helped encourage positive self-image, conflict resolution and healthy living. 

NewPublicHealth spoke with Teresa Marx about the lessons she learned during her trip to Ghana and how she can apply them back in the United States in her future work.

NewPublicHealth: What inspired your initial interest in Africa particularly and in public health overall?

Teresa Marx: I come from a really diverse family and I’ve always been really interested in learning about and immersing myself in other people’s cultures. I started minoring in African Black Studies and learning more about Africa [at DePaul University]. I wanted to actually go and experience Africa: the culture, the people and the food. It’s one thing to learn about it, but then it’s another to be immersed in it. Public health has always been an interest of mine because I love knowing that through education and awareness we can create healthier communities and a better world.

NPH: Tell us about the specific program that you were on. There was a medical and public health focus. What was it like to go straight from college to basically treating people?

Children waiting in line for treatment. Children waiting in line for treatment.

Marx: The greatest part for us was that we shadowed the Ghanaian doctors and dentists and really learned so much. We had different stations in the village that we worked with which included triage, doctor consultation, OB/GYN, dentistry, public health and pharmacy. Because the doctors wanted us to understand the work we were doing, we were able to assist them with almost everything. It was definitely overwhelming to treat hundreds of people who had health issues ranging from malaria to HIV. But the best part was seeing how appreciative the people in the village were. They don’t have easily accessible healthcare, and the hospital is so expensive, so [these clinics are] what they look to. It’s amazing work, but it’s also heartbreaking at the same time.

NPH: Could you tell us a little bit more about the public health portion of the rotation and what that was about?

Marx: We ran public health education sessions in a question and answer-based format because we wanted to hear their thoughts and opinions instead of just lecturing.

We had different categories we would address such as water, and we’d ask, “Do you have clean water in the community?” Most of them acknowledged that they don’t have clean water. Some would say that they do even though it wasn’t clean, and we would say that if you boil your water it can kill the bacteria and the parasites that can lead to illness and diseases.

We also talked about topics such as diet, nutrition, family planning, finances, sexually transmitted diseases, and ways to prevent illness and diseases.

The people were very interested in the questions we asked and loved responding. It was really fun to see how much they cared about what we were saying and then how they would use the information we gave them.

A volunteer and patient. A volunteer and patient.

NPH: Why do you think that station was the most important?

Marx: It’s wonderful how every three months this program comes into this community and we do these Brigades, but at the same time the hope for the future is that the more educated and aware that these people are of the role they can play in their health and how important it is, then that’s when you see a change in the community and there will be fewer people to treat, as long as it’s also supported by sustainable resources. There will always be health issues, but increased education can help reduce the preventable ones.

NPH: What memorable part of your experience will always stick with you?

Marx: The people were the most joyful and happiest people I have ever met in my life. Material things don’t equal happiness—everyone there has a smile on their face and they love to dance. It’s such a good reminder that we don’t realize how fortunate we are. We can go to CVS and pick up our prescription right away, and these people don’t have that.

I think it’s important to take a step back from our lives and reflect on what we can do to improve the world. Instead of running away from poverty or illness, we can acknowledge it for what it is and face it and then find out ways to make a difference.

NPH: Do you think there’s something we can learn from how they approach public health or even the people’s approach to life over there that could be applied to improving people’s health here in the United States?

Marx: It’s about realizing how important health is to you and the world. And the people in this village understood how important their health is because it’s an everyday struggle for them. You only have one body—that should be a priority and these people get that. Their priorities are their health, their families, their community, water and food—basic necessities.

NPH: Is there anything else you want to share?

Marx: The most important thing is, no matter what field you’re in, to continue to inspire and educate people. That’s going to change the world no matter what. Also, some of us may be apprehensive about traveling to a different country or experiencing a different culture but you don’t have to travel to Africa if that’s not what you want to do. Even just simple things in your community—taking a few hours out of your busy schedule and doing something that makes someone smile. That makes such a difference. Then eventually, if you do want to travel or do a service trip, just go for it and do not hold back. Each of us has the power to make the world healthier.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.