“I was just made acting chairman of the homeless commission”.
I sat at my office desk and listened in silence as a man I have come to deeply respect spoke of the turns his life had taken. Once homeless, he had been dusted off, given a job and the opportunity to build a better future. He had then taken it upon himself to advocate for the homeless when no one else considered it either politically expedient or even popular to defend their rights. He was often woken up in the night to rescue some poor fellow stranded on the streets and would be accosted at times by worried parents looking to link a once-delinquent but repentant son with a job. Now, with this official appointment, he could not only be their advocate and defender, he would also be the man who made the decisions that protected them. Amazing things still happen.
The beauty of my work during this fellowship year in my opinion lies both in its variety and an ultimate focus on promotion of health and access to health care in disadvantaged populations. Some days are characterized by endless hours behind the computer typing up reports or evaluations and others by health policy or programming meetings listening in on exchanges among city officials. It is very easy to forget how all these meetings and assignments tie up not only for my fellowship this year. I thus often take the time to reflect on the things that I am involved in, why they matter and who I seem to be becoming. As I listened to him speak, I found another opportunity to reflect, resettling on a truth about what should be most important to me not only in this fellowship year but for the rest of my career.
My work cannot just be about excellent reports or high-powered meetings. At the very top of my list should be the people that I seek to reach, people that may not be able to protect their health and could be in desperate need of resources to access good health care. I am glad I live in Newark and can actually experience firsthand the reality that the people I will serve this year face each day, at least to some extent. This reality helps contextualize my daily routine so that hopefully I do not forget that promoting and protecting their right to health and access to health care is my raison d’être for the rest of the year. It is so easy to get lost in heaps of documents, political rhetoric and academic discussions on ethics and economics. I made a fresh decision after that conversation to hold onto not just what I planned to do in global health but who I aspired to become: an advocate, a defender, and maybe someday the woman who makes the decisions that protect and promote health for the people I feel drawn to serve.