Samia Alam '12 Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Works in an Urban Health Clinic in Bangladesh

Samia Alam is a Biology major from Woodside, N.Y. She applied for a Johnson Opportunity Grant to spend her summer working in an urban health clinic in Bangladesh through the Distressed Children and Infants International (DCI) Volunteer Program.

This summer I was in Bangladesh, working at a clinic for underprivileged people, visiting slums to check health conditions of children and pregnant women, and teaching at an orphanage, which overall has been an eye-opening experience. The Johnson Grant has given me the opportunity to learn about the healthcare system of a third world country and have a life changing experience there.

I would wake up at 7:00 a.m. and get ready to go to the clinic. Although the clinic is just half an hour away from my house, it usually took me an hour or more to get there because of traffic. In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, the traffic rules and regulations are so poor that no one actually follows the basic rules of driving. So while the driver was overtaking other cars, speeding and not driving in any particular lane, I was praying to God to not make this day my last day on Earth. Once I got used to the traffic system in Bangladesh, I actually enjoyed looking at the busy city, crowded roads, people pushing each other to get into buses, beggars knocking on car windows for money and other interesting scenery.

When I finally got to work, patients started coming to see the doctor. When the doctor asked the patient a question, I asked some follow-up questions to get more information about the patient. I helped take patient histories, including checking blood sugar levels, blood pressure and recording the weights of children and pregnant mothers. Since all of the patients were from slums near the clinic, they were usually uneducated and ignorant about their health. We had to talk to them in simple words so that they would understand what we were trying to explain. Because of their lack of knowledge, they seemed very helpless, and expressed their gratitude when they got better. I gained a sense of fulfillment after helping them.
It was very interesting to work at the clinic, as I observed a pattern in the type of health issues people suffered from in Bangladesh. The majority of the young patients were malnourished, suffering from flues, various infections, diarrhea and skin diseases from their unhygienic living environments and lack of nutritious food. A lot of older patients were suffering from body aches, arthritis, vitamin deficiencies and problems related to their lungs due to physical labor and inhaling dust at work and in the slums where they live. I also observed that a lot more female patients were suffering from malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies than males. Working with different doctors and seeing patients has helped me learn about different treatments and diagnoses, and also understand the lifestyles of extremely poor people in a third world country.

After examining all the patients, we would visit the slum to see if there were any children or pregnant women there. We examined the children and pregnant women in each house, and gave them vitamins and other medicines that were needed. We talked to them to increase health awareness in the area. As they realized that we were trying to help them, they were very generous and friendly with us. Even though they are very poor and do not have enough food for themselves, they still invited us to their small one-room houses and offered food. While we avoided eating their food for safety, it was nice to see how welcoming they were. Since people at the slum are not used to seeing people in Western clothes, I wore very simple and traditional Bengali clothes called saloar kamiz at work in order to make me and the patients feel more comfortable as we talked about their problems. I even tried to talk in their slang while discussing health awareness issues. I have definitely become more proficient in speaking Bengali--even in different slangs--after working there!

In addition to my time in the health clinic, I worked at an orphanage run by Distressed Children and Infant International (DCI),  the organization that arranged my program at the clinic and the slum. I did not plan on working at the orphanage when I applied for the Johnson Opportunity Grant. However, when I met with the kids during my first orientation, I wanted to know about their lives, and also wanted to help them. I went to the orphanage twice a week to spend time with them--I taught them English, helped them with their homework, and then played different games with them just for fun. I was amazed to see how curious they were to learn new things and meet new people. The supervisor of the orphanage told me how they lost their parents and homes, and how some of them were physically abused by their relatives. After experiencing such tragedy at a young age, they have learned to stay strong and smile again. Their lives have made me realize how fortunate I am to have a family and so many opportunities in life.

I had so many different experiences this summer through the DCI volunteer program. While I enjoyed working and living in Bangladesh, I also gained a lot of valuable experience which will help me in the future. That's why, once again, I would like to thank the Johnson Opportunity Grant for my unforgettable summer experience in Bangladesh.