Peru, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Liberia. Four distinct places with one common similarity: a desperate need for improved health care systems. One BC student has recognized this need and taken action to make a difference.
Christopher Reynolds, MCAS ’18, has dedicated himself to improving global health. A double major in biochemistry and theology, he wants to work with the most marginalized and vulnerable populations he can find.
Reynolds felt drawn to global health because of a condensed PULSE program he took freshman year that instilled a desire to serve. Because he spoke a little Spanish, traveling to Latin America seemed like a good idea. In search of a volunteer organization that would take him abroad, he found International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ), through which he could travel to Peru for a month.
Thanks to a Boston College Advanced Study Grant (ASG), he embarked on his trip the summer after freshman year to analyze the country’s urban and rural sectors’ access to health care. He spent three weeks in Cusco and a week in the Peruvian highlands, living in various homestays and participating in service projects.
This experience gave Reynolds an awareness of the disparities between health care in the United States and other regions of the world. Like many individuals who take part in service trips to developing countries, he was taken aback by the poverty and minimal health resources. As a result, he was driven to investigate the field in greater depth and particularly inspired to study it in Latin America.
He started doing so by taking HIV/AIDS and Ethics sophomore year with Rev. James F. Keenan, S.J., which inspired him to study theology. He was moved by Catholic social teaching’s obligation to serve the poor, most vulnerable individuals in society and its insistence on justice.
“The class showed me that if I want to make a difference and help people, I have to go where people are in need and learn from them,” Reynolds said.
He also became motivated to study HIV in the Dominican Republic, which has the highest rate of the disease in Latin America, and to work toward achieving fluency in Spanish. He received funding through another ASG to travel to the country for 10 weeks.
While abroad, he shadowed in a hospital in five different departments, helped with the pediatric infectious disease rate project, and took Spanish in the afternoon. As virtually the only American in sight, Reynolds was forced to cement his Spanish-speaking ability and become self-reliant, both of which are important skills for global health work.
Only a week after this program ended, he got on yet another plane headed to BC’s study abroad program at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), one of the top universities in Ecuador, for the fall semester junior year. He entered his five-month experience planning on conducting research on adolescents’ health, pursuing an internship at the university hospital, and attending classes at USFQ.
In the process of researching adolescents, he interestingly continued to notice that maternal mortality was a significant problem in Ecuador. He found that women were often hesitant to go to hospitals because of their social class; the cold, scary, and sterile environment; and their theological and philosophical bases for conducting childbirth at home. Reynolds believes that when individuals lack social determinants of health, such as a good education, proper housing, and food and water, ailments can arise easily and the risk of death increases.
One such sickness common to the region is sobreparto. With its symptoms of fever, chills, cold sweats, and fatigue, it can render a woman temporarily unable to take care of her newborn baby. It usually occurs in the period right after childbirth and, left untreated, can have result in proneness to all kinds of ailments or being sent to the emergency room.
Reynolds believes that research allows students studying in Ecuador to get exposure to healthcare and understand the social disparities between the U.S. and the country.
After initially joining a selective program that paired him with a medical school mentor, he discovered various healthcare projects that Ecuadorian students were not interested in. He knew it was important for this work to be done, so he wanted to engender interest from both the Ecuadorians and BC students in these projects and to have them done well.
Reynolds was aware through his experiences in Latin America that the premedical and medical education systems do not teach their students proper models of how to treat vulnerable populations abroad. It is far too common that these students, both locals and foreigners, fail to establish effective programs to address the needs of the individuals they serve once they leave, an idea discussed in “The Voluntourist’s Dilemma” in The New York Times.
To ensure that the individuals being served are truly better off, Reynolds argues that this process has to be continual. Once the students leave, there will be no more medication, resources, and money pouring in. The purpose of service should be so that the local community is better off once they leave.
“Global health requires mutuality, understanding the population, and engaging the people who are going to be receiving the services before you show up,” Reynolds said.
Culminating his desire to generate interest in the healthcare projects and his knowledge of the mistakes that premedical and medical students make in treating impoverished individuals, he decided to establish a collaboration in which BC nursing students and pre-med students could practice in an Ecuadorian clinic while also performing research. This enabled students to learn about tasks around the hospital as well as truly engage and address the needs of the populations they were serving.
Reynolds most recently worked in Liberia for two months to study post-conflict medicine. He received funding from the Eagle Intern Fellowship Program at BC and the Presidential Scholars Program.
One may wonder, “How did Chris Reynolds end up working in Liberia after having had so much health-care experience in Latin America?”
During the second semester of his junior year, he took a theology class with Stephen Pope. One day, the class went to a talk with Chris Barrett, an economics professor in African Development from Cornell guest lecturing at Harvard.
Reynolds, looking to further his horizons and experience with health care, formed a connection with Barrett, who directed him to the Division of Global Women’s Health at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Mount Sinai had just sent two doctors to Liberia in an effort to launch a healthcare program and offered to bring him on.
He was tasked with working on a public health project with a group of LGBTQ+ men screening for Hepatitis C and HPV, and this was no easy task. On the whole, Liberia’s health resources have been decimated, due to two civil wars and the recent Ebola epidemic. Reynolds believes there are only 50 doctors in the country, all of whom are only general practitioners.
People with complex medical conditions or cancer have nowhere to turn for help in Liberia. To make matters worse, the maternal mortality rate in the country is 600 women per 100,000 births, 100 times the rate in the U.S. The country is also a particularly difficult place to be LGBTQ+, since it is illegal.
He thinks that many medical problems arise from social instability, as there was in Liberia. He points to the cholera outbreak in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the cholera outbreak in Yemen because of the civil war, and the polio outbreak in Syria because of the civil war as just a few examples.
He used community-based participatory research, a new public health approach that enables a professional to train a group of local health workers in surveying the LGBTQ+ men in their knowledge and risk for HPV.
Screening 110 LGBTQ+ men in total, Reynolds believes the program was a great success, especially considering that he and the team were the first to do research on STDs in West Africa with an extremely marginalized group of people.
“There’s a continuity of care and I get to keep working with the Liberian team,” Reynolds said. “I would feel guilty if I went there for eight weeks and left and didn’t actually create connections or serve the community.”
Through a partnership with Stop Aids in Liberia (SAIL), an organization run by Liberians for the LGBTQ+ population, he wants to establish a men’s health network with Mount Sinai through which doctors from Mount Sinai Hospital can connect to Liberian men through a private messenger forum to talk about men’s health, HPV, and HIV.
There is also a doctor from Mount Sinai, Whitney Lieb, headed to Liberia in October to screen for cancer in men who tested positive. He remains in close contact with her on a daily basis. He personally will continue visiting Liberia throughout medical school if he can.
He still connects with his contacts in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Liberia daily and works on projects with them. He believes that these partnerships and the model of care he established are very effective methods to enable long-term development in the countries.
Next year, he wants to go to Colombia through a Fulbright grant. Colombia, which just came out of a 52-year-long civil war, is an excellent place for him to pursue his interest in post-conflict medicine and Latin America. He wants to look at how the former FARC rebels and internally displaced persons reintegrate into health care.
Reflecting on his college experience, Reynolds is proud of the work he has accomplished. Although he is not definitively sure where he will end up in the future, he would be honored to work with an NGO like Doctors Without Borders or Partners in Health one day.
He thinks that his approach to improving the health and wellness of marginalized populations abroad is an effective method to enhance their lives. But he also believes that one just needs to have a desire to help others to make an impact abroad.
“Any student in Boston College can make a profound difference,” Reynolds said.
Featured Image by Jake Catania / Heights Contributor