Najaha Musse, right, poses with children participating in a nutrition program in Honduras, one of several outreach trips the VCOM-Virginia second-year medical student has taken part in.
Healing knows no borders

From Ethiopia to the US to Haiti: A journey to support underserved patients

Born in Ethiopia before emigrating to the U.S., Najaha Musse, OMS II, was given a crash course in Haiti this summer on how socioeconomic factors impact health.

Najaha Musse, OMS II, at Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) in Blacksburg, Virginia, was the recipient of an AOA scholarship that sent her to Mirebalais, Haiti, this past July for an immersion course in social medicine. The course was offered through the non-governmental organization EqualHealth.

The DO spoke with Musse about how the Haitian course and her personal journey have helped shape her view of health care and efforts to support the medically underserved. Following is an edited interview.

Tell us about your upbringing in Ethiopia and your emigration to the U.S.?

I was born in Oromia, Ethiopia, and my family came to the United States as refugees when I was 7 years old. Beginning formal education in the third grade, I served as an interpreter for my parents during health visits.

As the oldest of eight children, I was the first to graduate from high school and attend St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where I was fortunate to have a meaningful, global experience.

Where did you travel? 

St. Olaf students are given the opportunity to complete a course between semesters. In my sophomore year, I traveled with my French class to study French language and culture in Fes, Morocco. Traveling throughout the country—to Casablanca, Marrakesh, and our home base Fes—I enjoyed the cross-cultural mélange of Arabic culture and French language.

Before that, in 2011, I traveled to Israel-Palestine to study the biblical geography of the Holy Land, fully immersed in the geopolitical challenges of the time as a young Muslim female traveling in Israel.

When I decided to pursue osteopathic medicine, I knew it was the right step for me because I am always intrigued by patient histories, which are integral for effective clinical diagnoses. In essence, medicine allows me to combine my passion for science and my love for different cultures.

How did your knowledge of French come into play during your recent visit to Haiti?

I was selected to participate in the course on behalf of the AOA. This course was taught only in French, so my knowledge of the language was essential.

What about the course compelled you?

I firmly believe many chronic illnesses affecting marginalized and underserved communities stem from socioeconomic factors, which can be alleviated by health-conscious, social and economic policies. As a mother of two young boys, I want them to grow up in a more equitable and just world where health is a basic human right.

The osteopathic philosophy of a holistic approach to health care delivery allows me to contribute to that mission. I also serve on the board of directors of the International Oromo Health Professionals Association, a humanitarian organization which seeks to address the health care needs of Oromo communities not only in the U.S. but also globally.

What did you learn from your experience in Haiti?

The course was definitely an immersive experience. Mostly because while studying the socioeconomic history of Haiti, we experienced it ourselves. On the day of the Belgium-Brazil World Cup match and a couple of days before our flights to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian government issued a hike in gas prices, which they knew would be poorly received. So instead of announcing it when people were paying attention, they announced it when fans were glued to the TV. After the World Cup upset of Brazil, which many Haitians had adopted as their team, there was civil unrest. Haitians took to the streets, burning tires and blocking roads. The U.S. embassy issued travel advisory warnings for the region. Naturally, the course was postponed for a week and we conducted webinars to stay on track. When we arrived, we hit the ground running.

What was your experience of Haiti?

My first impression of Haiti was an image of a country in abject poverty. Quickly though, I began to appreciate the geopolitical circumstances that resulted in Haiti’s extreme poverty, particularly the debt paid to France after Haiti’s independence in 1804.

During hospital visits, we had the opportunity to speak with a 42-year-old female post-op patient who presented with an abdominal mass. While taking her history, I inquired about why she stopped going to school in the 5th grade. She said she stopped because she needed glasses to see and she could not afford them at the time. This is an example of how economics and social circumstances adversely affect patient health and education. Patient education is not only the key to better health but also essential to developing many impoverished nations. To treat patients who are medically underserved, we must understand how social and economic factors impact the individual patient.

To learn more about the lessons Musse learned from her social medicine course in Haiti, read her accompanying story.

Further reading:

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DOs poised to gain practice rights in 15 African countries

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