Jasmine Varughese (2012 Rosen Fellow)
Rescue orphans from gangs; sew up a bone-deep gash on a child's forehead; intern at the third largest hospital in India — Jasmine Varughese did all of the above last summer after winning the Rosen Fellowship.
The Rosen Fellowship, currently in its third year of funding a plethora of student projects, is focused on giving students financing for a chance to pursue life-changing endeavors.
Varughese officially began working on her proposal for the Rosen Fellowship after hearing about it from her friend Lizzie Cusick, who won the fellowship the first year it was made available. Varughese said, "I heard it was a chance to change your life. The fact that you're allowed to do anything anywhere — it wasn't about the money." What Varughese planned was a two-part proposal. The first part sent her to the Congregational Christian Hospital (CCH), the largest hospital in the state of Tamil, India, where she shadowed doctors. Varughese noted that the CCH had a reputation for being a technologically advanced hospital, but when she arrived, she saw that doctors were not even wearing gloves.
During her week and a half at the hospital, Varughese was given no quarter from the difficulties of health care. She shadowed a doctor in a nephrology unit who told Varughese to "come with" her and "not make any faces." The doctor took her to brief a poor young family without giving her any preparation.
This family had a son whose kidneys had failed. According to Varughese, kidney failure is prevalent among poor children in India because of the lack of proper nutrition and clean water. The doctor told the family that their child would need a transplant, and that he would be on dialysis until a kidney became available.
Getting an organ in India is like hitting the lottery, Varughese noted, but according to her, the family did not need time to deliberate when they offered to sell the little bit of land and cattle that they owned to pay for the operation. The doctor, much to the horror of Varughese, told the family that maybe it would be best to let their son die, noting that they had two other children to care for.
Varughese said, "There’s the good and bad news of medicine. Like telling parents your other two children have as much of a right to life. Give the kid dialysis and maybe he dies of complications, but how are you going to take care of the other children you have with no land or cattle or means of survival?"
Varughese learned first-hand how difficult it is to be without the means to make money in India when she went on to fulfill part two of her proposal: working with an orphanage named BOSCO. Here, Varughese learned that many children on the streets are not truly orphans. When children are young and belong to impoverished families, they are often targeted by gangs to be kidnapped and used as beggars, pick pockets or prostitutes. She explained that it is easy for gangs to kidnap children from the poorest families in India because the parents are often working so much to earn a living that they are not home to keep an eye on their children.
Varughese actively fought against the street system of child abuse during the three weeks she worked with BOSCO, which not only cares for orphans, but also rescues children from the streets. She described the rescue operation as something similar to a police stakeout. She and her companions waited in a van and observed children they suspected were orphans to make sure they were actually orphans, not children belonging to a nearby impoverished family.
Once it was determined that the children were orphans, Varughese and her team had to make sure it was safe to approach the children. The danger, one of Varughese's partners informed her, is that the gangs in charge of the children usually have guns and don't like it when children are rescued by orphanages.
Medicine is an important part of BOSCO, and Varughese was able to play an important role in the medical care provided for the children. Her primary goal was to educate the children on hygiene, and not just that basic hygiene is important, but why it is important.
"Many of the children at the orphanage understand that hygiene is important, but many don't know why," Varughese said. She smiled and continued: "The importance of education and knowledge is way more valuable than anything else. They [the children] finally get to have a sense of empowerment and say, 'I know something important, I can help somebody.'"
During her stay with BOSCO, Varughese also performed her first work in the field of medicine. She noticed a child sitting and crying, and when she checked on him, she saw he was injured. "He had a big gash on his head. You could see the bone," she said. When she questioned the director about why the child was not taken to the hospital, she was told it was not possible to take him because then all the children would want to go.
Varughese, noting that the head wound was still bleeding, took the only action she felt she had available. She took the child to her room and stitched him up. Reflecting on her decision, she shook her head and said, "You could see the base of his skull. What irked me most was that no one did anything. If you're working with kids who don't have luxuries, you go out of your way to show you care."
The Rosen Fellowship story doesn't end there; Varughese and a friend are still working with BOSCO to establish a foster care system in Bangladore. They are making flyers and posters, and they are working to set up a pen pal system to help raise funds. "I’m so excited to see what happens with that," Varughese said. "I could talk about these kids the rest of my life."
— Article by Joseph Wade, 2012 Rosen Fellow