Ever since Hallie Byers was a child, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in medicine. Byers lost her best friend to leukemia at the age of nine and remembers thinking “that isn’t right.” By high school, she knew she wanted to go into health research or practice.

The 21-year-old put those dreams into action this summer by traveling to Kabale, Uganda, a city of 50,000 people in the southern most part of the country.  She worked at the Kigezi Health Care Foundation, a medical center that hosts a malnutrition clinic, general clinic and HIV clinic.

 “It’s like life flipped 180 degrees when I landed there,” Byers said.

One of the most impactful moments for Byers was when she experienced a live birth for the first time.

Of course she had expectations. “You have all these images of someone screaming, it’s very Americanized, it’s very sterile, there are lots of doctors, you’ve got [the woman] on an IV drip, ” Byers said.

“We went in, it’s one hospital bed, covered in plastic, and [the woman] hasn’t had any pain medication, no epidural, and she’s not making a sound,” she recalled. “She’s also 18 years old and her husband passed away two months ago.”

The trip was a rollercoaster of emotions for the team. Byers noted that they were able to find “so much unexpected joy in a place where everything is difficult” but that she also found herself asking questions such as, “Who am I to be feeling these other people’s sadness?”

In Kabale Byers was also working on surveys and outreach on nutrition, HIV and family planning. One woman they met had lost seven siblings and a father to HIV. As of 2014, an estimated 7.3 percent, or 1.5 million people, including 150,000 children, are living with HIV in Uganda. Because of this high quantity, everyone in Uganda is supposed to get tested every three months, and all HIV and tuberculosis medicines are completely subsidized by the government.

Byers found the family planning talks to be the most challenging because of the vast cultural differences at play. She noted that contraceptives are fairly easy to access, but most women are scared to use them because their husbands do not want to. The team found the most effective avenue was discussing the quality of life for each child that was being brought into the world and discussing when families are having children, not just how many.

The trip was so impactful that Byers changed the direction of her studies. “I want to do something to change systems, to change access,” she said. She is now planning to pursue a career in public health, focusing on policy and epidemiology.

(Written by Morgan Weidner, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Sept. 17, 2015)

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