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Medical co-op delivers on student’s wish

Third-year biology student Pritika Patel squeezed into a closet-sized makeshift emergency room at a public health clinic in Cape Town, South Africa, to help a woman give birth to twins.

“To see an actual birth was completely surreal,” said Patel, who weighed the newborns.

On co-op from January to April, Patel worked closely with nurse practitioners and low-income patients at a clinic in Masipumelele, a township in Cape Town. She measured vital signs, analyzed urine samples and administered pregnancy tests.

The experiential learning opportunity reinforced her desire to give back by helping patients get well, like her first co-op at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, where she tested hearing in newborns.

“Since I was 10 years-old, I’ve known that I wanted to be a doctor and that I wanted to work in poor areas of the world,” said Patel. “This co-op was amazing because it was like a little piece of all the things I said I want to do.”

Many of her patients were infected with HIV or tuberculosis, including one woman who had been HIV positive for 14 years. Up to 40 percent of the population of Masipumelele is infected with either one or both of the diseases.

The HIV positive woman had refused to take medication. “Some of her friends were on antiretroviral drugs and died, so she decided to forego treatment and stick to healthful eating and prayer,” said Patel. “She was adamant about not taking medication and said she was living for her children.”

In addition to the clinic, Patel volunteered two days a week at the Hokisa Orphanage in Masipumelele where she tutored children affected by HIV. A 9-year-old boy named Sive made a particularly strong impact on Patel, who called her friendship with the child the “best part of going to South Africa.”

“Every week, I got to know him more and more,” said Patel, who shared music on her iPod with her new friend. “He told me about his weekend, and I would tell him about mine. It was so sad to say goodbye.”