My cousin and her baby died during childbirth. Beyond the staggering loss, the part that hurts the most is that their deaths were preventable. They almost certainly would have lived had my cousin been treated for preeclampsia, a condition that causes dangerously high blood pressure during pregnancy. But in my cousin’s village in Nigeria, no such treatment was available.
Women and babies dying of treatable causes isn’t abstract for me. These are the people I know and love. This is my family. Unfortunately, this is also the reality for millions of people — someone’s cousin, someone’s daughter — around the world.
When I entered medical school, it was because I wanted to help people. I saw the sacrifices my parents made as immigrants so I could have more opportunities, and I wanted to give back. In 2014, I travelled to my parents’ village in Nigeria to help set up a clinic for basic health services. I saw people die of malaria and tuberculosis because they didn’t have access to treatment. Seeing that, and seeing what happened to my cousin, changed my perspective. No one should die because they don’t have access to treatment, yet this was a global problem. I had to do something. But what?
For me, the answer has been advocacy.
In 2016, I did a fellowship with an anti-poverty organization called RESULTS, which trains people to engage in grassroots advocacy. I learned how our government works, from the ground up. I learned how to talk to my members of Congress about global health policy, including new legislation called the Reach Act that could pave the way for the end of preventable child and maternal deaths around the world.
I also had the opportunity to take my message straight to Capitol Hill. Here’s what surprised me: The staff in my Senator’s office actually listened to what I had to say. When I told the story about my cousin in Nigeria, and why passing the Reach Act should be a priority, the legislative aide looked at me and said: “I’ve never talked to anyone who’s had that experience.”
Before getting involved in RESULTS, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I could have a conversation with my members of Congress about issues that matter to me, and that they would take what I say seriously. It’s been life-changing.
I’m still in medical school, but once I graduate I want to delve into health policy. That’s one of my career goals now. In Bending the Arc, Dr. Paul Farmer talks about rejecting “fear and cynicism” to do what we know is right, no matter the odds. Since becoming an advocate, I’ve seen how my small voice has the potential to impact millions of people around the world. The least I can do is speak up.
Nneamaka Ezekwe is an M.D. candidate at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.