Student NGO promotes health care as human right

Taking lessons from the classroom to the front lines

Top, Max Xu '13 and Jake Lurie '14 in Timor Leste; bottom, a young patient in the clinic; center, Xu after solution of the water problem; right, Dr. Dan Murphy with patients in the Bairo Pite Clinic.

It may be rare, under normal circumstances, to see university students up before 10 on a weekend in the summer, but every Sunday this summer vacation, Brandeisians and other Boston-area participants in Project Plus One met for three hours with the common cause of promoting health care as a human right.

With laptops and iPads ablaze and Skype calls coming in from members in New York, Washington D.C., Kenya, and the small, South Asian nation of Timor Leste, students sipped hot coffee and chatted animatedly about things like long-term malnutrition alleviation projects, MDR-TB, and the economic effects of the new HIV prevention drug. They were taking lessons from Brandeis’ classrooms and putting them into play on the frontiers of healthcare infrastructure development.    

Project Plus One (PP1) is a student-based 501(c)(3) non-profit founded by Paul Sukijthamapan ’13 in May, 2011.

Through an opportunity afforded him by the Sorensen Fellowship, Sukijthamapan spent the summer of 2011 working in Bairo Pite Clinic, Timor Leste’s primary healthcare source for the poor. Upon learning that this clinic was in danger of shutting down some of its most effective programs due to insufficient funding, he organized a team of friends to help support the clinic. Working closely with Nate Bessa, a student from Northeastern University, the two friends created Project Plus One and encouraged peers to join the initiative.

This summer, the operations of PP1 were two-fold. On the NGO front, 16 students spent their weekends and spare time furthering the goals of PP1 from their laptops. The Boston team, a mix of undergrads, grad students and medical students, reflected many fields of study, including English, International and Global Studies, Health: Science, Society and Policy and pharmacy. Strengthened by this variety of academic lenses, the Boston team focused on furthering a nutrition-based project for tuberculosis patients, creating patient surveys to be utilized by the clinic, social media campaigns, grant writing and furthering connections with Timorese students.

The latter effort is integral to the mission of Project Plus One, because the organization seeks to promote a culture of bilateral cooperation as PP1 grows. As Director of Operations Bessa stressed in one of the Boston team’s weekly meetings, “We realize that international projects, if not planned in complete solidarity with the members of the local communities, can ultimately be more disabling than supportive. So it is our mission to intensely learn about where we work, develop unity and friendship there, and thoroughly assess to what degree our projects will actually make a community better off than before.”

Through the course of PP1’s development, the organization has taken deliberate steps to harmonize with the local public infrastructural system. In keeping appropriate government agencies informed about PP1’s activities, not only did these projects become more sustainable, PP1received numerous letters of support from these agencies. One notable achievement made by PP1’s Boston team this summer was in outlining the organization’s three-year plan to Emilia Pires, Timor Leste’s  finance minister.

One of the key accomplishments made by the PP1 Boston team this summer was in coordinating and funding the repair of a water pump for the clinic. A pressing issue, the need for this repair was communicated back to the Boston team from Max Xu ‘13, Brandeis student who worked at the clinic this summer.

“When we arrived, the main water pump at one of BPC’s satellite clinics was broken,” Xu wrote in early June. So long as it remains broken, “50 to 60 tuberculosis patients are left without clean water to drink and wash.”

Utilizing part of a $16,000 grant PP1 received from the Millennium Campus Network and the Fessenden School, PP1 was able to repair this pump using local resources. In subsequent months, PP1 further developed plans to build a community garden to provide a sustainable source of fruit and vegetables for tuberculosis patients. In doing this, PP1 seeks to lower operational costs for the clinic.

PP1 sent two Brandeis students, Xu and Jake Lurie ’14, to Timor Leste to volunteer at the clinic on behalf of the field operations division of Project Plus One. They worked under the watchful guidance of Dr. Dan Murphy, an expat physician who has devoted his career to serving the poor of Timor Leste, overseeing operations and giving direct patient care at Bairo Pite Clinic. Xu and Lurie were daily witnesses to the ever-present barriers of working in a low-resource setting that must be overcome or overlooked in order to provide quality healthcare to the poor.

Shortages of medical supplies, trained staff, and funding are just a few of the obstacles that the clinic faces every day, a situation the students captured in many of the stories they relayed back to friends and family in Boston.

Here is one such story that Lurie sent:

            I just Googled it. As of this morning, 114,782 candidates are on the waiting list for organ transplant in the States. The actual number of transplants that occurred from January–April 2012 was 8,987. That’s not a good ratio, but it’s something.

            "Go ahead and take his vitals," Dr. Dan instructed me. The young boy had a pulse of  140/0 (yes, over zero). He had rheumatic heart disease, and when I felt his pulse, it felt like a bullet being fired from a gun. His left ventricle was going full-blast, but it was getting virtually no blood back for what it pumped out. The condition was called mitral stenosis.

            Dr. Dan said the kid needed two new valves or he wouldn’t be around for very much    longer. After seeing the patient, Dr. Dan dragged a small pink notebook out of his desk and scribbled the patient’s name in it. Apparently, he had kept a list of every patient he saw with severe heart problems in this book. He flipped through the first dozen pages or so. "All these are gone," he pointed. There were dates from years and years ago, faded into the pages of the spiral notebook. He flipped through the pages towards the end of his list. "These still have some time."

            I couldn’t believe all the names I saw. Pages and pages full of black and blue ink. All needing various heart pieces or parts or transplants. Dr. Dan was hopeful, but it didn’t sound like many patients ever got what they needed.

Though witness to many difficult moments during their time in Timor Leste, Xu and Lurie returned to the States in early August with renewed passion and commitment to Project Plus One. The two students will be heading the Project Plus One student club at Brandeis and hope to use their stories to inspire others to join in the movement.

In preparing for the fall semester, PP1 is looking forward to engaging more Brandeis and Boston-area students within its movement. In addition to recruiting new students, PP1 directors and students have been asked to present in two workshops at the 2012 Millennium Campus Conference at Northeastern University. A powerful and inspirational meeting of students and professionals devoted to development, PP1 encourages students to attend the conference September 14 –15. Tickets are available at $25 on the MCC website.

Jumping into the fall term with hopeful hearts and open minds, PP1 members remain strong in their commitment to sustainable and effective development of healthcare infrastructure in Timor Leste. They hope incoming first years, upperclassmen and parents will join in the growing community of those who hold the common belief that health is a universal human right.

“We might all believe in the idea of health as a human right,” says Executive Director Sukijthamapan, “but actually taking that idea and pushing it into reality may seem like a completely different thing. Impossible, maybe. But I know that we can affect lives across the world every day if we choose to act in solidarity.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs, Student Life

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