Back on track: Student has life-changing experience in South Africa
On a July day in Johannesburg, South Africa, College of Idaho senior Pragna Naidoo watched as a deathly ill woman walked through the doors of the family practice of Dr. Edmund Foster. The woman could hardly walk. As she sat down, her arms shook trying to hold herself up. She was clinging to life with every ounce of strength she had.
Dr. Foster went over and started feeling specific parts of her body while asking questions. He blatantly told the woman that she had HIV and would die in two months if she didn’t go to a clinic to get help.
“I asked, ‘Why would you just tell her if she had HIV?’” Naidoo said. “What if it was something difficult for her to hear?”
But in South Africa, doctors have to be upfront with their patients in order for them to take action and do something about their health, Foster told Naidoo.
Over the summer, Naidoo traveled 10,100 miles to South Africa to intern with a chemical pathologist at the University of Witwatersrand—the top medical school in South Africa—and also shadow at doctor for 70 hours as she prepares for medical school. But in addition to gaining medical knowledge, Naidoo gained a deeper understanding of herself, her goals, and the path she’s walking.
Naidoo’s internship with Dr. Nitien Naran involved collecting blood samples from differing races—white, black and Indian—to test if the onset of heart disease and diabetes is genetic.
“So I basically spent the summer collecting blood samples, taking CT scans and trying to fit bits and pieces together about how this gene mutation varies in different race population, and what that means for heart disease,” Naidoo said.
After collecting the blood, they extracted the DNA to identify a gene mutation that leads to an increased chance of cardiac disease. They found that the black population was least apt to heart disease and diabetes, the white population was in the middle and the Indian population was the most at-risk.
Being Indian, the research got Naidoo thinking about whether she is predisposed to heart disease. So, with a few weeks left in her internship, she collected her blood and the blood of a few family members to test. The results showed that her insulin number was rather high.
So at the age of 21, Naidoo made changes to her diet—cutting out soda and candy—in order to stay healthy and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
“It kind of scared me, because I would never have seen that coming,” Naidoo said. “This definitely opened my eyes about my own health.”
After her internship was done, Naidoo shadowed a family medical practice in Benoni—a third-world-esque suburb of Johannesburg riddled with trash and horrid smells.
“There was definitely a lot that I had never seen in an American practice setting,” Naidoo said.
For example, the doctor’s desk, the patient’s bed and all the equipment were kept inside one room. And hardly any of the people that came in where there for something as minor as a cough. If they were visiting, it was serious.
“In South Africa, they’re coming when they are literally in immense pain,” Naidoo said. “That was definitely an eye-opener for me.”
There were a couple of times when it was hard to not get emotionally attached to a patient. One lady in particular stands out for Naidoo. The woman had severe arthritis in her knee, to the point where the doctors were considering amputating because she couldn’t walk on it. The lady told Naidoo a lot about South Africa, the current crime and fear that pervades Johannesburg, and a little of her life story.
“She was very inspirational and the face of a struggling older woman during a time [of social unrest and crime],” Naidoo said.
Naidoo herself could also feel the impacts of rising crime in South Africa. She couldn’t go out alone and couldn’t wear makeup or jewelry—anything that would attract attention. Her grandma was assaulted a year ago in Johannesburg as a man yanked a fake gold necklace off her neck and pushed her to the ground.
“I was able to see Africa differently than I ever had before,” Naidoo said. “I was in the grit of what Joburg is like. Seeing that part of Africa was a part I’ve never seen, and it humbles you.”
Eye-opening. Inspirational. Transformative. All can be used to describe Naidoo’s experience. She now has a deeper appreciation for her family, freedom, and a renewed focus as she enters her last year at The College of Idaho.
“Growing up [in America] you kind of take for granted things that you have…I know when I open the door and go for a walk, nothing is going to happen to me,” Naidoo said. “I know that when I open the door and see my car, I can get in it and go wherever I want. I know that I’m free and I’m safe.”
The experience also turned her eyes inward and made her take a look at herself and her values.
“As far as personal growth, it taught me a lot about being independent and my personal goals,” Naidoo said. “My goal is to make it to med school and to make something of myself. I feel like I became a little bit distracted in the last couple years…but I feel like South Africa has always been a place that has set me on my path and directed me to where I’m supposed to be.”