Two students embark on personal Jan Term
mission, work to reduce apprehensions of leprosy
-Photos Courtesy of Stephanie Fry
Editor in Chief
Two students worked at an Indian hospital to defeat stigmas surrounding leprosy by playing board games with infected patients, helping orphaned children with special needs and educating the community about healthy living.
Senior Stephanie Fry and junior Meghan Olson both wanted to study abroad in college, but none of the Linfield programs fit the bill.
Fry was searching online and saw a banner ad for internships abroad and clicked on Experiential Learning International, a non-profit organization based in Colorado. It offers study abroad programs in
Fry said she was interested in the opportunities in India, Vietnam and Nepal, but her mother vetoed Nepal because of the political unrest in the country.
While studying for her chemistry class one day last April, Fry discussed her travel desires with Olson, who immediately agreed to go with her to India.
“We were like, ‘all right, let’s go to India,’” Fry said.
She said Olson simply picked up her phone and called her dad to inform him of their travel plans.
There was very little planning for the trip, Fry said. After wrangling visas and passports, the girls were off to Chennai, India, on Jan. 3 for one month.
The girls lived in an apartment connected to the leprosy hospital where they were volunteering. Gremaltes, the hospital they visited, was built by Germans in 1980 to help reduce the leprosy problem. Fry said when it opened, 155 in 10,000 Indians suffered from
Leprosy is curable at every level, Fry said. She said she wasn’t afraid of working with patients because the infection risk is low. The real problems occur when it is
“A body can just appear like it’s rotting,” Fry said.
The bacterium affects nerves, and victims lose motor and sensory functions. Because it hurts the nervous system, sufferers do not feel pain. They may develop ulcers, drop foot or clod hands, when one can no longer move the feet or hands. It can also affect the sinuses, causing the nose
Fry said many of the poor cannot afford to take a day off work to see a doctor, and without treatment they eventually become deformed.
Because of current treatment, the hospital has opened up other health services as the leprosy number has decreased to one
Gremaltes now offers mostly outpatient services such as eye care, dentistry, dermatology, public health, testing and orthopedics. While the two were there, Fry said the hospital cared for about 15 to 20 admitted leprosy patients.
Fry and Olson began their days between 7 and 9 a.m., met with an education director, worked in the hospital or the slums nearby and fell into bed around midnight,
The students traveled and taught public health to the elderly in assisted living homes and elementary schools. They told the children to make sure they drink enough water, eat enough food and to avoid consuming unsafe fruits and vegetables, Olson said.
Most educated people spoke English, Fry said, but to communicate with those who spoke only Tamil, the local language, she had to use hand gestures and
Fry said the main goal was to eradicate stigmas about leprosy, HIV and AIDS. She said Western cultures do not deal with leprosy because in the past, victims were shipped off to
She wants to continue with public health and medicine after graduation because she enjoyed her interactions with the leprosy patients.
“I have this weird love for infectious diseases,” Fry said.
In the hospital, they shadowed doctors at work, and Olson said she enjoyed playing board games with
Olson said she was interested in helping special needs children and asked the program coordinator if she could help at an orphanage. She spent six days feeding rice to children and moving them in and out of their beds for physical therapy.
She said before her trip, she was torn between practicing medicine abroad and helping kids with special needs; now she realizes there is a need for those who want to do both.
Fry said the most surprising thing was the attitude of those who lived in the slums. She said families only had five plastic jugs of water for the whole week, which they have to pump from a well by hand, but they were always happy and smiling, offering the students food and tea.
“I complain because I have homework,” Fry said. “I look at these people and the things they have to do to get through their day. Their attitudes are so welcoming and kind and upbeat. I didn’t know what to expect going in there, and seeing that was reassuring that they’re not in a completely negative spot.”
Despite missing family, friends and peanut butter, living on curry and rice in every form and constantly feeling sticky because of the bug spray they coated on their bodies, the students both said they want to return to India.
“I couldn’t wait to be clean for 24 hours and eat beef,
but I didn’t want to leave at all,” Olson said.
At 3 p.m. May 1 in
Riley 201, the two will share information about health care in India. For more information about the presentation,