In The Media

New Dimensions and New Perspectives

By Jen-Ai Lai • Schulich Leader at University of British Columbia
Winter 2014
Category: 

Third year, first semester has been one of the busiest.

I got my first taste of academic “field work” in an upper year anthropology class called Medicine, Society and Culture. Students are required to conduct in-depth interviews with either an individual, or family of a child with a chronic illness within the local community. The purpose of this assignment is to better understand how people conceptualize their experience with illness and assess their healthcare needs.

I have had experience as an interviewer before, but interviewing for the purpose of filling positions is completely different than interviewing to obtain ethnographic data. There is a delicate balance between phrasing questions objectively so as to obtain a truthful account of the necessary information, without simply eliciting the responses that the interviewee thinks the interviewer is looking for.

Having the opportunity to speak with new parents of a child with a rare genetic disease, and later sharing and comparing interview experiences with other classmates, has illuminated a whole new world of insight for me.  I realized that, for many individuals and families battling with chronic illness, isolation is a perpetual source of stress and concern. Isolation can come in many forms including: social isolation of the family due to the demands of an endless care regimen, and isolation of the affected individual from mainstream society brought about by the physical and cognitive effects of the illness. Furthermore, the family members often play a critical, but unspoken role as unofficial healthcare providers.  When not in the hospital, they are the frontline doctors, nurses and therapists. They are also largely responsible for the integration and dissemination of information among numerous care providers. It is clear that a shift in focus away from symptom-centric care and towards a more family-centered approach may have positive implications for chronically-ill individuals and their families. Coming from a science background, we are taught that reducing bias and sampling error are the hallmarks of good science. I found it very interesting to see how understanding and embracing biases may instead play an important role in improving the efficacy of modern healthcare.

In other news, I am very pleased to share you that we (my colleague and I) have successfully started university divisions of Hope for Happiness (HFH) at UBC and the University of Waterloo.  With the hard work of over 40 dedicated volunteers, we have managed to raise a substantial amount of awareness and funds for HFH’s current international development initiative.

Late last August, I drafted a letter. This letter contained a proposal for a potential development project. All too often, well-meaning people from come into another community with preconceived notions and engage in charitable work that is more harmful than helpful. Not wanting to make this mistake, I sent letters to individuals and organizations asking whether my idea had good potential to benefit their respective communities. Less than a day later, Joash Johannes replied. As the only person to obtain a university degree in Mugeta Village (Tanzania, Africa), Joash has spearheaded an educational initiative called Mugeta Children’s School (MUCS) to give back to his community. Currently, he is completing his doctoral studies at UBC.

Joash explained to me how my idea to foster economic and health development through a community-based, agricultural project was a longstanding dream of the villagers. The problem was that they had neither the financial, nor knowledge-based resources to make it into a reality. After several meetings, we soon found that we shared very similar values and aspirations. HFH is now working in collaboration with MUCS and the Mugeta Village Council to equip and empower Mugeta villagers with innovative, sustainable farming skills in order to ensure their food, health and livelihood security. More information about our Sustainable Farm Project can be found at www.hopeforhappiness.com.  If you would like to learn about Joash’s initiative, please visit: www.mugetachildren.com .

As I said, third year, first semester has been one of the busiest; but it has also been one of the most meaningful.  A very special thank you to: my dear parents, Hina (my friend and colleague), a close friend at UBC, Joash, Shona Ellis (my department head) and all of those who have supported HFH for their continued support and encouragement.  I am very grateful to Mr. Schulich, whose generosity has made it possible for me to pursue the things that I am most passionate about.