This year I took “Conversations in Global Health” as one of my electives for the Graduate Programs in Human Nutrition. If you have not heard of this class, I highly recommend you take the 1 credit and attend. It is held once a week and there are incredible speakers who engage and excite you about their work in the global community. Dr. Kravitz also has pizza for the first 20 or so people, just in case you needed another bonus beyond the presentations. You can visit the OHSU webpage to find the latest calendar and recorded lectures.

As we wind down this year, we were asked to write a reflection about our experience and what we are inspired to do to help those in need. I thought I would share with you my experience in listening to Dr. Martin Smilkstein’s talk on his experience in war-torn Sierra Leone. I hope you too will find inspiration and think about your place and the tremendous impact you can have on the world.


To  bear  witness

Struck by the powerful simplicity of these three words on an otherwise uneventful Wednesday afternoon in Global Health, I quickly scribbled them on my notebook. Dr. Martin Smilkstein had just described the unspeakable levels of horrors, unnecessary tragedies, immense pain, and fleeting moments of joy he experienced in Sierra Leone.

I, like many people, first heard of Sierra Leone when I watched “Blood Diamond.” Leonard DeCaprio romanticized the plot, engaged me in the drama and convinced me diamonds are not forever, as the campaign ads by De Beers would lead you to believe. I was not moved to action, just entertained, Hollywood style. It was not until I listened to this Global Health lecture that I was jolted upright, my wandering mind brought to acute awareness of the injustices in our global community.

I came home that Wednesday evening, my boyfriend shocked as my distraught thoughts and questions flooded out when I described what I had heard and seen that day. Two days later I came across the 2007 National Geographic documentary, “Africa’s Blood Diamonds.” It was the footage from that film and the powerful images from Dr. Smilkstein’s presentation that has inspired me to write, and find a way to act. Act as a fellow human being, not just a dietitian.

I am haunted by the questions I ask myself when I think about my place in the world. A place where giving birth can be a death sentence and staying alive past infancy is a rarity. Does this really still exist? Yes, and not in isolation.

A doctor who has donated months of his time and precious life to help strangers in a war-torn area, not allowed to return to his family in Afghanistan because of a political debacle 3,000 miles away?

We have all encountered patients and families, who have put others in harm’s way or endangered each other through their negligence. These are the tough cases that make you wonder how one person can do this to another, but thankful you were able to help. It is nearly incomprehensible to me that one man’s statement to “join hands together in peace,” ended up creating thousands of amputees. A senseless act that we, as a global community, turned a blind eye to and negligently allowed these atrocities to occur. Was there no one there to bear witness and tell their story?

How is it that the world we live in can still overlook the fact that a six year old boy is handed a gun and taught to kill – not only complete strangers but also sometimes his own parents?

And how do we idly stand by as a grieving mother makes the decision to carry her dead child in her arms for 25 miles as she walks home or forever leave him buried by a stranger along an unmarked trail in a foreign forest?

These are all questions I believe each of us, as fellow human beings, needs to be asking and finding a way to help in whatever capacity we are able. Sierra Leone is not alone in these struggles, yet stability is coming to this area of Africa. I believe the knowledge that is shared with us about these global issues is not to be kept as a scribble in our notebooks, but rather shared as broad strokes with everyone we encounter. As a dietitian, I recognize I am not going abroad to place IV’s, do emergency surgery, or help a famished mother give birth. But I can help find resources closer to home that will help support these efforts abroad. I can use the power of story to tell anyone who will listen or read about starving families, the doctors who save them, the trials and tribulations in places that will remain foreign to most of us.

Dr. Smilkstein’s story as part of Medicine Sans Frontiers (MSF) was incredibly moving, so much so that it has challenged me each day to “Temoignage.”  Although few of us will ever have an experience such as the good doctor, I am reminded that even within the safety of our own country, our communities and our hospitals, we can all bear witness.

“I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Elie Wiesel