Several years ago, Tasnim Beg took part in a medical mission to El Guineo, Nicaragua—and while she enjoyed deepening her medical skills and getting to know the area’s vibrant people and culture, she also began to question the long-term impact of her medical efforts there.
“It is frustrating to know that people are born into a roulette of poverty and governmental neglect that can become cyclical and all-encompassing,” she says.
As an MD/MPH student at Tulane University School of Medicine and School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Beg saw that same roulette unfolding in New Orleans—and she’s spending her Schweitzer Fellowship year working to do something about it. Beg is partnering with the Youth Drop-in Center to develop a yoga program that improves the health and quality of life of youth experiencing homelessness in New Orleans.
“Although America has school systems and prospects that are uncommon in other parts of the world, New Orleans is an exception to this opulence,” Beg says. “As the needs of our city become more apparent and more pressing, the opportunity for change is ripe.”
Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
As a distance runner, yoga enthusiast, and novice culinary experimenter, I feel comfortable and passionate talking to patients about ways to create healthy changes in their daily lives. However, the barriers to healthy living that our patients experience are grossly and grotesquely apparent—and, not surprisingly, these barriers disproportionately affect lower socioeconomic brackets.
Ideas to remedy these inequities began to percolate, and the opportunity for action arrived within the [Tulane] Family Medicine clerkship, as we were asked to create a project specific to the health needs of our clinic demographic. I had been assigned to a clinic in the quirky Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, where artistic talent runs rampant and wealth is not measured monetarily. I was eager to provide the residents with something that exuded the same warm-heartedness and vigor that they showed me each day. I sought to address mind and body fitness within the confines of cost, space, and access to technology.
Without a safe neighborhood for walking, bicycles, swimming pools, or gym memberships, but with the seemingly standard home amenities of a television and DVD player, a yoga DVD was born. It consisted of instruction on 10 basic poses and a small segment on meditation. I was proud to have developed something that could make access to healthier living an option for everyone, but soon recognized that a DVD player is not commonplace for some populations—among them the homeless youth of New Orleans.
With my ongoing training in medicine and public health, I am eager to make a difference here with the implementation of a yoga project that addresses the physical and mental needs of the homeless youth population. While some may say that there are more pressing issues at hand, they may be overlooking the far-reaching nature of yoga practice and the value of providing youth with a consistent, stable resource beyond that of food, water, and shelter.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
I hope to see the program sustained by its beneficiaries. Our kids have shown an eagerness to learn yoga that shows their ability to apply themselves in the right environment. I hope that the knowledge we are providing through our sessions is disseminated throughout the community and results in healthier living and higher quality of life. Of utmost import is that our kids know how essential they are to the program’s success and to helping others achieve improved health. Our project aims to abide by the saying by the philosopher Lao Tzu: “When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, the people will say, ‘We did it ourselves.'” To me, this statement embodies the spirits of public health, community health, and The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
Prevention is indisputably the most effective way to combat disease. I believe that with lifestyle changes alone we could drastically reduce the incidence of many diseases, including heart attack, stroke, diabetes, lung cancer, and more. Integral to prevention is the increased role of primary care, which recent legislation is facilitating by increasing access to providers, providing equality in reimbursement rates, and placing emphasis on wellness and maintenance visits.
While these changes are a step in the right direction, the fact remains that our educational system has failed many people in their knowledge of what comprises healthy living. The next step will be to address arteries to health within schools and communities to grab the problem by its roots. Increased preventive measures will decrease the numbers of unwanted pregnancies, parents and teens with addictions, doctors visits for health issues that require time off from work or school, and the myriad of other reasons that contribute to decreased retention in schools. These factors will help us come closer to restoring the support systems necessary for our kids to thrive. Our yoga project is but a drop in the bucket within this schema, but perhaps its ripples could reach farther than we could know.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
I thought that I would have to convince our kids that yoga is worthwhile, but have been thrilled to experience that simply showing respect and encouraging autonomy will go a long way. It has also been wonderful to have kids open up and ask questions that run the gamut of primary care: smoking cessation, nutrition education, teen pregnancy, STD counseling, depression, and more. These are the facets of primary care that I hold most dear, as they are impediments to healthy living that we can change. In devising our yoga project, I did not realize how readily these aspects would become incorporated into our daily sessions, but could not be happier with the holistic approach it allows.
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?
The Fellowship has given me an opportunity that I could not have imagined possible. Having the input of other Fellows with their broad range of experiences and diverse educational and cultural backgrounds has been invaluable in the development of our yoga project. The infrastructure of the Schweitzer program—with its emphasis on reflection, evaluation, and adaptation—is critical to ensuring our projects’ integration and acceptance in the community.
From what I have gleaned in my first few months of the Fellowship, to be a Schweitzer Fellow is to be intent on creating change to better humanity despite challenges that may arise. It is invigorating to work with people who regard respectable quality of life as paramount and who provide the opportunity to cultivate communities capable of implementing sustainable change.
Beg is a Schweitzer Fellow in New Orleans. Click here to read more about the New Orleans Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Beg it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to the New Orleans Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Beg’s efforts to improve the health and quality of life of teenagers experiencing homelessness, click here.
Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.