Honors College student discovers new worlds in Nicaragua

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IUPUI Global Medical Brigades traveled to Nicaragua for the 2017 spring break. Photo courtesy of IUPUI Global Medical Brigades

When the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Honors College hosts its annual showcase on Friday, students from all fields of study will share what they've learned in the last year. Presentations will range from undergraduate research to art, business and service learning, to name just a few. Stop and talk with Shivani Suravarjjala, and you'll hear how one freshman blew the doors off her admittedly sheltered life and found a world of new possibilities.

Suravarjjala has been on campus for just eight months. In August, she thought she had her career planned out. Her focus as a neuroscience major was to attend medical school. A minor in business would allow her to open her own private practice.

"That's what I was thinking when I walked into IUPUI," she said. "My perspective has changed."

What drove that change was a spring break trip to Nicaragua with the IUPUI chapter of Global Medical Brigades. For several days, Suravarjjala worked in a health clinic, where she assisted with triage and consultations. She helped prepare hygiene packets filled with items like shampoo and toothbrushes, filled bags with medication, led youth activities to teach healthy habits, and dug a trench for carrying clean water.

The illnesses she saw opened her eyes to what suffering can look like. The manual labor opened new blisters on her hands. And the challenges and rewards of doing all this in another country opened her mind to opportunities she had never even considered.

Stepping up to the pressure

Each day, students rotated through different stations -- triage, consult and charla, Spanish for "chat." When it was Suravarjjala's chance at triage, she was given a task she hadn't yet attempted in her 18 years.

"I had never taken anyone's blood pressure," she admitted. "It's kind of embarrassing for me. As a pre-med major, I felt like that was a vital skill I probably should have at least attempted to learn, but I never had the opportunity. We were learning the day before we were supposed to do it in triage.

"Apparently, there's a way to turn on a stethoscope. I learned that after an hour of tinkering with it, which was really embarrassing."

With the stethoscope turned on and confirmation that she and a friend were, in fact, not dead, it was time for the real deal. Locals queued outside the clinic. They all needed their vitals, including blood pressure, recorded.

"I was solely responsible for 100 people, and that really made me so proud of myself and yet almost scared that for the first time in my life, I was responsible for someone else's life," said Suravarjjala. "If I had recorded the numbers too high, it would look like the patient had hypertension, and the doctor would prescribe them hypertension pills. But if they didn't have hypertension and were taking hypertension pills, it might affect them in a bad way.

"That was something that really stuck with me: I have to do this right. I'm responsible for almost 100 people's lives. As an individual, I should be on top of my game 100 percent and do it the right way."

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Shivani Suravarjjala, front row, in light-blue scrubs, spent much of her time with the IUPUI Global Medical Brigades shadowing Nicaraguan doctors in a health clinic. Photo courtesy of IUPUI Global Medical Brigades

Textbook lessons come to life

With a population of nearly six million, Nicaragua is one of the poorest nations in Latin America. The uneven distribution of wealth has resulted in sporadic health care services, particularly among the poor.

Seeing academics come to life was a recurring theme during Suravarjjala's time in that environment.

She was taken aback when seeing patients treated for parasites: "It's one thing to read from a textbook and see photos. It's another thing to see someone who actually has parasites and try to understand what they're feeling, how malnourished they are and really the magnitude of what having parasites means, especially in a developing country."

During her consult shift, Suravarjjala had another first: shadowing a doctor during a gynecological exam.

"It was something you read in textbooks: 'Women get Pap smears after a certain age.' It's another thing to see it being done," said Suravarjjala. "I had never been interested in anything related to that. But I suddenly thought, OK, maybe this is a field I could be interested in. I could look into shadowing a doctor who is an OB/GYN.'"

Suravarjjala's mind was changing, and so was her heart.

"I have never been personally exposed to a lot of pain or heartache. So this was something I saw firsthand, and it was very new to me," she said. "I honestly didn't know how to react to it at first, but I grew to be more compassionate and empathetic toward their situation."

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IUPUI Global Medical Brigades in Nicaragua. Photo courtesy of IUPUI Medical Brigades

Culture chat

The lessons -- both medical and cultural -- continued outside the clinic. In charla, American students from New York University and IUPUI, including others from the Honors College, taught the area's children healthy habits such as washing hands, brushing teeth and exercising.

Translators were available, and Suravarjjala recalled some Spanish from high school classes, but much of the time required improvisation and charades. They played games like Sharks and Minnows -- which got changed to Cat and Mouse to accommodate vocabulary challenges -- and Down by the Banks. This last game is a test of quick hands, trying not to get tagged, and is set to a tune. That the Nicaraguan children even caught on to the game was a thrill to Suravarjjala.

"I sang it in English," she said. "It makes no sense in English; it definitely doesn't make sense to people who speak Spanish. But with these kids, language did not matter. We were able to interact regardless of what culture we were coming from, whether we even spoke the same language."

For someone whose drive centered on a medical career, charla had a profound impact on how Suravarjjala sees her future.

"I want to get to know the world around me outside of just Fishers, Indiana," she said, referring to her hometown. "Nowadays, it's important to be a global citizen, not just a local citizen. Now, more than ever, it's important to understand the people around you, understand the cultures around you and make the most out of what you get in life.

"That's something I was able to gain from this experience as well. Getting to know other people, and understanding their culture and where they're coming from, is an important part in how that plays out."

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Shivani Suravarjjala, fifth from left, in Nicaragua with IUPUI Global Medical Brigades. Photo courtesy of IUPUI Global Medical Brigades

'What next?'

Now back in the United States, Suravarjjala has a new outlook for her time at IUPUI and beyond. The timid teenager, once anxious about flying to a foreign country by herself, is now eager to have new experiences. Fear and worry have been replaced with confidence.

"I feel like I can handle more responsibility," she said. "If I can handle taking blood pressure for 100 people, I think I can take on Honors College mentoring or be a leader or take on a new class. I think I have learned a lot about myself and the way I can handle things."

Suravarjjala still plans to go to medical school, but instead of private practice, she now has her sights set on practicing internationally.

"Once I finish, I want to travel. I want to go to these camps that they have, especially in my home country of India," she said. "It is my roots, and I feel like I can speak the language, so I would probably be able to help a little bit more.

"I also want to minor in Spanish now," Suravarjjala said. "I already know a couple of languages because of my Indian heritage, but I want to learn one of the more universal languages of America. And I want to travel with that background, and hopefully that will go into something else, and I'll find something else after that.

"I don't really know in terms of 'What next.' I had such a hard-core mindset of 'I want to do business.' But now it's medicine, and I want to do Spanish and travel. A lot."

The seventh annual Honors College Student Showcase will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. Friday, April 14, in the lower lobby of University Library. Suravarjjala will be on hand to share videos and photos from her experience. All are welcome to attend.