Education, trust and empowerment needed to address non-communicable diseases

Growing up, I witnessed the devastating toll of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) on my loved ones. Their battles fueled my desire to enter the field of global health, which emphasizes education as a crucial weapon against NCDs. Little did I know that my journey would lead me to Saipan, a tiny island in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, where I had eye-opening experiences and met individuals who changed my perspective forever.

There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to address NCDs in my capstone project. The Mariana Islands stood out to me because of high rates of diabetes, kidney disease and tobacco use. Even though health education was accessible, only a handful of patients attended classes. I chose to focus my research on understanding barriers to health education in the Mariana Islands and on providing recommendations on how to confront these obstacles.

Throughout my time on Saipan, I engaged in interviews and conversations with those directly affected by NCDs. One interviewee said, “I honestly recommend a support group because that’s what I really needed at the beginning. I cried almost every day leading up to my first treatment. On the first day, I almost ran away. Having a support group, not just outside of the [hospital], but within, would really have helped me a lot. I think it would help others with similar experiences.” These words emphasized the importance of emotional support systems for navigating illness.

My experience on Saipan was not solely defined by research. The islanders welcomed me kindly, sharing their stories and perspectives. I was fortunate to be immersed in Saipan’s vibrant culture and beauty and to undertake my project alongside three other students from the MS program. When we needed a break, we explored the breathtaking beaches on Saipan. I especially admired the crystal-clear waters and the peaceful sounds of gentle waves.

Saipan also carries a rich history, particularly from World War II. I was fascinated by historical sites that served as tragic reminders of the war’s impact on the community. One of the most memorable events from my trip was a visit to the nearby island of Managaha. Managaha had lush greenery and spectacular beaches that seemed straight from a postcard. I enjoyed snorkeling in the water and felt a sense of serenity as fish swam around me.

The challenges I faced in my research shed light on the broader implications of NCDs, both in the Mariana Islands and back in the United States. I spoke to interviewees who exhibited distrust for the local hospital and, interestingly, for me as a researcher based in California. This motivated me to establish trust, understand cultural nuances and build relationships rooted in respect and empathy.

Saipan became more than just a research destination: It was a place where the power of health education unfolded before my eyes. Health education goes beyond textbooks and classrooms: It is a powerful tool that can uplift communities and transform lives. As I begin medical school this fall, I aspire to integrate the valuable lessons from my visit to Saipan by embracing health education as an important investment.