Toorach, awarded the Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellowship to

Toorach, a four-year-old boy living in
northern Uganda, sat timidly in front of me as I shined a light into his eyes.
He displayed all the symptoms of severe vitamin A deficiency: night blindness,
wrinkled conjunctiva, and white patches adjacent to his cornea. His mother, I
later discovered, did not give birth at a health center because she could not
afford to purchase her own medical supplies. Consequently, Toorach was born at
home and never received any antenatal care, which typically includes vitamin A
supplements and education on how to feed her child. I felt helpless in explaining
to his mother that Toorach needed to be seen immediately by healthcare staff – four
hours away by foot.

After graduating, I was awarded the Mickey
Leland International Hunger Fellowship to lead a research project on food
insecurity in Uganda. I have spent the past year documenting the remarkable
stories of the Acholi community that live in the northern region. This
community has suffered from significant hardships for decades – the
insurrection of the Lord’s Resistance Army, forced relocation to internally
displaced camps, and political failures – that have left many without access to
a stable food supply or reliable medical care. My Ugandan colleagues and I are
hopeful that by collecting health-related data in remote villages we can
improve the delivery of resources to people who need it most, like Toorach.  For me personally, my time in Uganda has
provided me the opportunity to get a better and more holistic perspective on
the etiology of health disparities.

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My initial interest in health disparities
was piqued during my sophomore year when I attended a lecture by Dr. Paul Farmer,
a leading global health expert and human rights activist, on the consequences
of tuberculosis in developing countries. He spoke about the role of social
justice in medicine, and the need for more funding and research to be allocated
towards conditions that disproportionately affect underserved communities. It
was my first realization that many people are still not receiving the benefits
of contemporary medicine. Encouraged by his lecture, I began working as a
Research Assistant at the Maryland Center for Health Equity to elucidate
barriers to colorectal cancer screening in African American communities. While
interviewing participants, I fostered perhaps my most important skill during
college: listening. The stories I encountered pushed me to be a more empathetic
individual and informed student, and I developed an impassioned awareness of
the socioeconomic and political barriers that hinder access to care.

Concurrently, my interest in medicine began
to crystallize as I joined Providence Emergency Room as a medical scribe. The
extended hours of the hospital allowed me to work nights and weekends, and then
attend class during the day. One evening a man, paralyzed from the waist down,
presented in the emergency room complaining of a pungent smell arising from his
wheelchair. During his physical exam, we found a large ulcer on his buttock
deep enough to expose the bone. His injury, the result of tremendous neglect,
required surgery to prevent the infection from taking his life. The patient reported
that he had been evicted from his apartment and, now homeless, had been unable
to attend his physical therapy sessions. I was shocked by the cascade of events
that allowed for a pressure ulcer to develop into a life-threatening condition.
To my surprise, I would continue to see this patient numerous times throughout
my two years at Providence Hospital. A combination of heroin abuse and mental
illness made it difficult for him to seek care outside the emergency room. I
admired how the physicians built his trust over the years by treating him with
understanding and compassion during each visit, and I desperately wished there
was more I could do to help. Ultimately, my time at Providence Hospital helped
me understand the inextricable link between poverty and disease, and I
recognized the tremendous need for physicians to serve in under-resourced

Though my time as a medical scribe cemented
my desire to be a doctor, my interest in medicine has been growing for a number
of years. I can trace it back to my early childhood when I would listen to my
mother, an intensive care nurse, recount stories about her patients. The
genuine concern she would show for her patients’ wellbeing, even after coming
home exhausted from a 14-hour shift, taught me at a young age that medicine is
both a rewarding career and a powerful tool to help others. I know that the
hours I spent listening to her stories, and learning about the challenges she
faced emigrating from Mexico to the United States in her mid-twenties, inspired
me to push through my own hardships of balancing working nearly full-time and maintaining
a rigorous academic schedule in college. I now understand the important role overcoming
these challenges has played in molding my resilience and leadership qualities in
ways that are permanently entrenched in my character. And having seen how
physicians are already contributing to bettering the world around me, I am
eager to begin my next academic journey as a medical student.