URI student aims for public health career in Latin America

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Providence resident set to graduate from URI May 20, pursue med school

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 8, 2007 – Rachel Furman has always enjoyed learning languages. She learned Hebrew at home, took courses in Portuguese and French in high school, and fell in love with the Spanish language, which became her major at the University of Rhode Island.

A growing interest in women’s health issues that she developed on a volunteer trip to Guatemala in January 2007, coupled with an infectious disease course at URI, has convinced Furman to merge her passions and pursue a career in public health in Latin America when she graduates from URI May 20.

“What was unsettling to me in Guatemala was the unequal distribution of health care,” explained Furman. “Those living in or near the capital could access health clinics, but those living in remote rural areas are likely to deliver their children without proper medical care. This experience helped me focus my goals.”

Furman’s trip to Guatemala City was an eye-opening experience. She volunteered for a month at a public maternity clinic, taking the vital signs of pregnant women, helping with prenatal exams, coaching women in labor, and offering them comfort during delivery.

“I didn’t have any medical background, but you could tell they need a lot of help, and I’m a quick learner, so they let me do it,” Furman said. “I was the only foreigner in the clinic, and nobody there spoke English, but you can’t be shy. You can tell they lack a lot of resources – the beds are just iron cots with few pillows – but the doctors do such a wonderful job. All their record books are hand written, so part of my job was to write out every single form in Spanish.”

Furman’s experience in Guatemala followed closely behind an honors class in infectious diseases she took with URI Professor Roger LeBrun. “Roger is very enthusiastic, very encouraging, and he gets so excited about his topic that even if you get an email from him telling you to write four pages for the next day’s class, he’s so excited about it that you don’t see it as an inconvenience.”

LeBrun is equally impressed with Furman.

“There are some students who believe earning credit for a course is enough,” he said. “There are others of deep compassion like Rachel who have the courage to do so much more. They take what they’ve learned from my course, go out into the world, work in abject poverty at great personal risk, and change people’s lives forever.”

Guatemala wasn’t the first Latin American country Furman has visited. As a URI sophomore, she planned her own study abroad itinerary, beginning with an intensive language training experience in Buenos Aires, Argentina, followed by six weeks of classes in Valparaiso, Chile at the Universidad la Catolica, and concluding with three weeks of backpacking around Peru.

“I stayed with a host family in Chile, and we lived right by the Pacific Ocean and just a couple hours away from the Andes Mountains, where we went skiing,” said Furman, who competed on the URI ski team for four years. “That’s when I really had a breakthrough and started to speak Spanish well. No one I met there spoke any English, so I was really forced to do it.”

In Peru, Furman and two friends she met in Chile avoided the tourist destinations and instead rode buses to small towns to experience the local culture.

“Our most memorable experiences were being lost after sunset, not having a great mastery of the language, and not knowing where to stay at night,” she recalled. “There’s not a lot of diversity in the South American countries, so we got a lot of stares from people. It was the first time I felt like I stood out because of the way I looked. At first it’s alienating, but then you get over it, take a deep breath, and keep on approaching people.”

After graduation later this month, the URI student will take a year out of school and find a job in a public health organization before enrolling in medical school and returning to Latin America to ease the burden of women in need of health care.