The Columns

International Health Care: Nicole Gunawansa ’14 Alumni at Work, Luce Scholar, Sendai, Japan

— by on September 5th, 2016

Nicole Gunawansa '14

Nicole Gunawansa ’14 has seen health care delivery in a variety of settings domestically and abroad. She has taken away from those experiences a conviction that health care is a human right.

“People have the right to acquire services that help promote betterment of health, irrespective of unfavorable life circumstances,” she said. “Volunteering in venerated hospitals, rural free clinics and medical settings abroad has opened my eyes to the level of sensitivity needed when administering medical care.”

Finishing a 10-month Luce Scholarship at the International Research Institute of Disaster Science at Tohoku University School of Medicine in Sendai, Japan, Gunawansa plans a transition year doing work for a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., before enrolling in medical school.

First she will attend the wrap-up conference for Luce Scholars in Indonesia, where she and other scholars will reflect on their experiences in Asia. The Henry Luce Foundation created the Luce Scholars Program in 1974 to enhance the understanding of Asia among potential leaders in American society. It awards grants to young leaders who have had limited experience in Asia and might not otherwise have an opportunity to spend time there.

As an undergraduate at Washington and Lee, Gunawansa experienced the health care systems in other parts of the world, particularly Denmark and Ghana, after receiving both a Johnson Opportunity Grant and a Shepherd Consortium International Internship. Her fascination with international medicine grew during those experiences.

“I felt it would be enlightening to gain some exposure to the medical situation in Asia, specifically the impact of natural disasters on health care infrastructure,” she said. Because it is the region that has been hit the hardest by natural disasters in the last decade, “Asia is an area in which I knew I could learn about the restoration of medical systems and the impact rebuilding has on patient populations.”

She heard about the Luce Scholarship from a classmate and applied “to bring me one step closer to better understanding the current practices and policies within international medicine.”

At the research institute, she worked with the Department of Disaster Psychiatry, assisting with projects related to the impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake on mental health. The projects included analyzing clinical cohort data, running animal experiments that test the role of microglia in fear response, and interviewing healthcare professionals and first responders about the implementation of disaster medicine.

Gunawansa majored in neuroscience at W&L with an added emphasis in poverty and human capability studies. As a Summer Research Scholar, she spent four years participating in behavioral neurological research and presented her findings at the National Society of Neuroscience conference in 2013.

She said her W&L education has been “tremendously beneficial” to her work in Japan. “I find myself constantly drawing upon methodological and experimental background information and memories from my W&L research experience.”

The work she did at the institute was “heavily intertwined with her neuroscience major, making the process of transitioning to clinical psychological research less daunting and more rewarding.”

Once she decided to pursue the Luce Scholarship, she turned to several professors for support: Sarah Blythe, assistant professor of biology; Holly Pickett, associate professor of English; Erich Uffelman, Bentley Professor of Chemistry; Janet Ikeda Yuba, associate professor of Japanese; and Harlan Beckley, Fletcher Otey Thomas Professor of Religious Studies. Gunawansa said they encouraged her and understood “my interest in international medicine and the benefits of the Luce Scholarship relative to my ultimate career goals,” she said.

However, it was Associate Dean Marcia France whom Gunawansa calls her “pillar of strength and reason” while she pursued the Luce. “Her constructive criticisms, meticulous analyses and words of reassurance were precious contributions that helped me put my best foot forward in the competitive application process,” said Gunawansa.

Her volunteer service and exposure to healthcare were not confined to international experiences. As a Bonner Scholar and AmeriCorps member, she worked with such organizations in the Lexington community as the Rockbridge Area Health Center, the leadership team of the W&L Campus Kitchens and several afterschool programs. She also volunteered in Birmingham, Ala., where she worked with programs such as A+ and Focus First to promote the welfare of youth in the city.

Having spent more than 900 hours in volunteer service, beginning with work at hospitals and homeless shelters in her hometown of Portsmouth, Va., Gunawansa turned a volunteer requirement for a club into her life’s passion.

“It soon became the reason I wanted to pursue medicine, especially for disadvantaged patient populations both domestically and internationally.”

She said most of her time volunteering at hospitals was pleasant, but “the occasions that I have witnessed patients being treated without respect or dignity have left a lasting imprint on my mind and conscience,” she said. “Regardless of whether you are a millionaire or homeless, everyone should be treated with compassion in daily life and in the medical field.”

She believes too that every person — whether living in a developed or developing nation — “should feel a sense of security that he or she can receive health support despite social or financial status or even cultural or societal stigmatization.”

She plans to take that belief with her through her medical education and career to become “a compassionate doctor capable of fighting for even the most marginalized of patients.”

– by Linda Evans