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Living in Kenya expands medical student’s views of global health

Living in Kenya expands medical student’s views of global health

Caption: Helen Wu Li (far right) with colleagues.

The internet may have brought people on Earth closer together, but it is a still a wide world of wonder and opportunity. Third-year medical student Helen Wu Li is taking it all in. Her experiences in Africa last year as a Slemenda Scholar and this year as Doris Duke Fellow have changed her view of the world. These experiences just might lead her to initiate some big changes in the field of global health.

Though she is pursuing medicine, after a few minutes of talking with her you could easily see her as an educator, a novelist or even a motivational speaker. Li’s a real glass-half-full type. She wants to take your possibly antiquated notions of just about everything and change them.

Life in Kenya as a Doris Duke Fellow

Dusk in Kenya

Dusk in Kenya

While there are plenty of under-developed areas in Kenya, Li is based in Eldoret, Kenya’s fifth largest city, which is probably a lot more modern than you may think. She has internet access, hot showers and refrigerators. Within the hospital, there are CT scanners, functioning operating rooms and teams of highly dedicated medical staff.

“Of course, there are moments that do remind you that you are in Kenya: sleeping under mosquito nets each night, running into cows on the way to work each morning or seeing patients sharing beds in the hospital wards,” Li said. “Regardless of this, the Kenya that we know is often very different from the Kenya that people imagine.”

Getting a taste for global health

Spending a summer as a Slemenda Scholar cemented Li’s dream of pursuing global health. Her experiences with AMPATH (a partnership between Moi University, Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, North American universities led by Indiana University, and the Kenyan government) surrounded Li with innovation, dedication and hope.

“My mentors, Drs. Peter Kussin and Connie Keung, are invested in patient care and medical education with mind, body and soul,” Li said. “My fellow researchers, both American and Kenyan, work tirelessly in the field or the hospital. They strive to push a little further, work a little longer or just reach one more patient each day. I can only imagine the challenges the leadership and staff at AMPATH face, both at the hospital and beyond, but each time I talk with them, it is unquestionably clear that they love their work. Being surrounded by this each day, you can’t help but want to be a part of it.”

Expanding the scope of palliative care

Li’s project for her Doris Duke Fellowship involves assessing the need for palliative care among surgical patients. She explains that palliative care is still a growing entity, even in the United States. However, the need for it in Kenya is astounding. She says the notion of palliative care needs to be changed.

“Palliative care may deal with life-threatening or end-of-life situations, but what this specialty provides is a chance to live,” Li said. “Having conversations with patients and families provides the first step to understanding the honest future that lies ahead and allows for making peace and preparations as needed. Most importantly, respecting patients enough to acknowledge the limitations of medicine and your own powers as a physician, while simply offering to walk alongside them as a fellow human being during their time of need, is the definition of the care we promise to provide.”

Holding up hope

Li understands palliative care may sound like a deeply intense field, and it is.

“What breaks my heart the most is when a patient tries to bargain for their diagnosis in exchange for completing my research survey,” Li said. “Or when a family member asks me when the patient will get better when all of the medical staff know there is nothing more to be done.”

But as soon as she explains that, she is ready to tell you where she finds hope.

“The hope is always with the people,” Li said. “I will say that without question, the Kenyans I have met are among the strongest people I have ever known. Patients will sit through lumbar punctures without pain medication, and families will care for patients of other families as well as their own. Grandparents or older children will even become heads of household when parents succumb to the HIV/AIDs epidemic. In the face of unimaginable circumstances, the strength to move forward always exists.”

She says to simply sit and feel sorry for the circumstances is a waste of time. Time that could be spent understanding the problems and determining the next steps to attain goals.

“Therefore, we must call on hope,” Li said. “Hope is the drive for a better future, hope is human and hope is very much alive in Kenya.”

Global health in your “own backyard”

Though she describes her time in Kenya as “life-changing,” Li says it’s not all about location.

“In my time abroad, one of the biggest ideas that has struck me is that many global health issues can be found in our own backyards as well,” Li said. “Poverty, illiteracy, inability to access healthcare, cultural distrust of the healthcare system, violence and more affect many areas in the United States as well. Therefore, I believe that there are many global health concepts that can be translated to the states, and vice versa as well. My ideal career in the future would be to marry these two fields together. I’d like to build a transnational view of health care.”


Find your perfect research opportunity through IMPRS

The Indiana University Medical Student Program for Research and Scholarship  (IMPRS) is IU School of Medicine’s hub for medical student research in Indiana and beyond. IMPRS support includes helping students apply for research opportunities, and connecting students with grants and one-on-one advising.

If you are interested in pursuing a research program for summer 2019, visit the IMPRS webpages on MedNet soon. Most application deadlines are Monday, January 28.


Written by Jana Nordeen

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IU School of Medicine

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