Nirupama Krishnamurthi - Santa Marta, Colombia

Santa Marta, Colombia

Victor is one of the most delightful children I met over the summer. He was always ready to talk to us; always ready with a story or explanation for anything we asked him. On a little tour to the river nearby, I asked him what he carried in the cute sling bag he had. He took out a catapult and told me that he used it to hunt iguanas, which his mom then cooked for the family. It left me a little shocked and spellbound. However, he was quick and nice enough to point out that he never ate iguanas although his family did. He was very excited to get a picture clicked with me!

Career goal: To contribute to the improvement of health, particularly cardiovascular health, through medical and public health approaches.

Internship outline: Nirupama worked for 10 weeks with children from the indigenous populations of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, who were affected with Chagas disease. Chagas disease has a variable prevalence in this region and can be as high as 90 percent in certain settlements. She worked with children from the Wiwa and Kogui tribes — although historically from the same parent tribe, they have lived independently for many centuries now. Interestingly, they have different practices and differing prevalence of Chagas disease. Since Chagas disease has no vaccine or definitive cure and can cause cardiac problems in the long run, it is important to address this health problem by initiating preventive measures and starting anti-parasitic treatment as early as possible. The purpose of the internship was to assess the different factors contributing to varying prevalence of Chagas disease in this region, particularly focusing on malnutrition as a contributory factor. Additionally, Nirupama conducted an exploratory study to see if there were any signs of early cardiac involvement in the children who tested seropositive for Chagas.

Value of experience: Working for 10 weeks in Colombia gave me a rich cultural experience, and I learned things that no classroom could teach me. Fieldwork is very tough, especially in a low- or middle-income country. I faced numerous challenges with my project and gained a lot of insight and experience in the process. I spoke little Spanish before going to Colombia, so it was also a challenging and rewarding experience to improve my language skills and be able to bridge the communication barrier. However, the most important gain from this internship was a newfound confidence from traveling and living independently in a foreign country in a resource-limited setting.

Best moment/experience: Although a physician by training, I was never comfortable with working with children. However, the summer taught me to be more kid-friendly, and I had a great time talking to and working with children in Colombia. They were also the most cooperative patients I have come across in my practice! Apart from work, I had an incredible time traveling and exploring Colombia. The highlight of my travel was a two-day trip I took to San Andres, a magnificent coral island in the Caribbean Sea. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

Funding source: Down’s Fellowship

Nirupama Krishnamurthi