Earlier this year Rebecca Huebsch (B.S. Biology. '14) headed to South Sudan to join Medair's Emergency Response Team. She and her team helped stem a measles outbreak and provide much-needed health services. Responding to health emergencies is nothing new for the former paramedic. Huebsch shared some insights from her experiences with humanitarian health services and her the path she took from undergrad to international relief worker.
What does your role as an emergency response team health entail?
My job is to assess possible health emergencies within South Sudan, identify areas that should be addressed in our programs, and implement programs to relieve suffering. My first few months in South Sudan saw many measles outbreaks declared across the country. Along with my team, I was able to plan our response, train vaccination teams, and coordinate the vaccination of over 250,000 children. It was a big undertaking, but Medair ERT has surge capacity that would not be possible with the local health services alone. Now I am in a different area of the country doing an assessment of the health services available to these communities. Due to conflict, many communities have been forced to flee their homes. They are living in make-shift camps, and are extremely vulnerable to disease and more conflict. Beyond the extreme needs of these people, the increased population is now overwhelming the existing health system, which causes problems for the host community, as well. Every day is different with the emergency response team. We are constantly collecting information, and turning around to try and find solutions. At present, the amount of hands-on medical treatment I’m doing is extremely small compared to my time on the ambulance. Instead, I now have to be a jack-of–all trades. We coordinate with government and other humanitarian organizations, and organize large responses. At different points in the day I may be a paramedic, a public health professional, a finance officer, a HR manager, a teacher, a politician, or a data analyst. Really I think my job is professional problem solving. First we identify a problem in a community and find a solution. Then in implementing the solution we tackle the infinite smaller problems that make health service delivery in this country complicated.
How did your time at the College of Biological Sciences impact your preparation for your career?
I joined the student group called Biology Without Borders. At the time, the group was conducting semi-annual international biology-related projects. I was enthralled, so I immediately signed up to participate in the Tanzania project for the upcoming summer. Throughout the year we planned projects, learned about international public health issues and had briefings on the situation and culture we could expect while abroad. One thing I really appreciate about this tactic is that BWB made sure to give us a good understanding of how to approach humanitarian work responsibly. They also made sure to inspire best practices to maintain the dignity of the people we were serving. That first year in Tanzania, I was blown away. Our projects were small, but I loved experiencing the culture and seeing the impact of our projects. I would encourage every CBS student to take the time to travel. So often we are focused on grad school or professional schools, we never take the time to see the world we are trying to study. In the short time I was working in Tanzania, I saw needs unlike anything I had experienced in the U.S. It changed the focus of my studies, and I knew that I wanted to address some of the needs in my career.
I enrolled in the public health minor, and tried to learn more about the issues we were facing. I signed up to be trip coordinator for the next years Tanzania trip. I even took a semester of Kiswahili at the U. Soon I was back in Tanzania, this time leading the team. Because we were already familiar with the context, we were able to plan larger projects, and expand our program to include two new communities. We worked with a school for disabled and albino children, an orphanage, a street children’s center, and a leprosy community. To top it off, we were able to found a computer lab at Bukoba Secondary School with 27 donated laptop computers. We spent a few weeks training the teachers and students on basic computer science.
After graduating from the U, I began working with Perham Area EMS. Working with an ambulance service gave me experience providing health care services in emergency settings. I continued my education and became a paramedic so I could provide critical care services. Public health and healthcare are intricately involved, so I learned a lot about health systems and why health emergencies happen. I loved working for the ambulance service, but was still interested in public health and international humanitarian work. So I went back to school, enrolling in the part-time Master’s of Public Health program from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. My concentration is health systems and policy, and I’m in the certificate programs for global health and humanitarian health.
During my coursework, I completed a practicum experience with the Centers for Disease Control in Washington D.C.- furthering my love of public health. It was an interesting time to be at CDC, because it was the same time the outbreak of Ebola was declared in DRC. In the work, I was exposed to components of international outbreak response and control. Now working in South Sudan, the outbreak in DRC continues, even seeing a few cases in Uganda. Ebola preparedness is a large part of Medair’s ERT programs.
What advice would you have for CBS students considering a career path like your own?
If you are considering a career in humanitarian work, I highly encourage it. It is an excellent opportunity to share your skills with the world, experience other cultures, and to make a difference in a lot of lives. As you are considering, try out some public health courses, attend conferences, join the international humanitarian community (as easy as keeping up with websites like ReliefWeb). When I first became interested in this work, I expected it to be easy to start. But really there is a lot to learn, and I’m still working on it.
Learn more about the day-to-day life of an international emergency response worker at Huebsch's blog.