Please tell us about yourself. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
When Dr Vandana Joshi (MPHlth ’99), was enrolling in her medicine degree, her mother showed her a photo of her nine-year-old self wearing a stethoscope around her neck, with a big smile on her face. “Being a doctor was my childhood dream,” Vandana says.
Growing up in a small town in India, she remembers wanting to be like the only doctor in her community. Her desire to help others was strong. After graduating from university in India, Vandana worked for four years in a community clinic, often without electricity. She applied for an AusAID scholarship at the University of Sydney, and on 20 October 1994 at 2pm, she remembers receiving the call that would change everything. “It was the happiest moment of my life.” She is a public health professional but her CV reads like the script of a television mini-series. In 2000, while working with tuberculosis patients in Kashmir, a bomb blast occurred just 25 metres away from her. People turned to her for help. “To be honest, I was scared, but I pretended to be brave,” Vandana says. “Sometimes life doesn’t give you choices – you have to act.”.
Vandana graduated from the Master of Public Health from the University of Sydney in 1999.
Tell us about your career path
In 2014, while working for UNICEF, Dr Vandana Joshi was positioned in Sierra Leone’s Ebola ‘red zone’ to help fight the biggest health crisis on the planet at the time. They were called ‘The Ebola Fighters’ and were collectively awarded TIME person of the year for their efforts.
In 2005, she was sent as a team leader to provide humanitarian care in tsunami-affected Andaman and Nicobar island, often spending nights out in the open as protection against aftershocks. Then, in 2014, UNICEF sent her to the Ebola ‘red zone’ in Sierra Leone, to help fight the biggest health crisis on the planet at the time. When she joined, the infection rate was 100 percent, with the death rate among health workers at 90 percent. She lost two of her co-workers during the early response period.
“I had just completed my tenure in South Sudan, establishing community based screening for severely malnourished children, and I was preparing to return home to India when I was informed that I had been chosen to go to the Ebola ‘red zone’ in Sierra Leone.”
When asked how she can bring herself to work in these disaster zones, Vandana has a very pragmatic response: “If not me, then who?” After many years in the field she has armed herself with practical steps to staying sane: trust your team, ask for help when you need it; stop sometimes, eat your dinner and go to bed. She tears up as she says, “All humans need to take care of themselves before they can take care of anyone else.”
What keeps you motivated?
With hard work and grit, she hasmade it through years of working in emergency situations and war-torn countries. It isn’t easy, but there’s one thing that keeps her motivated. “It’s because of the look in people’s eyes, the love in their eyes – and you keep going.”
Vandana’s dedication and professionalism has brought her many awards, including the Time Person of the Year 2014, awarded collectively to the Ebola Response Team, and the
2014 UNICEF Global Staff award. Right now, Vandana is in Bhutan, working to make it the first country in the region to have zero mother to-child transmission of HIV – an admirable goal that is within reach. Her working life might read like a story of disaster and struggle, but the way Vandana tells it, it’s a story of hope. “Saving lives and spreading smiles are the most important things for me.”
What are key skils needed for a Public Health career?
In her view, good governance and community engagement are the most effective ways to promote health. “The best health and happiness could only be enjoyed and experienced by people if there is good governance and accountable systems in place.”
Using local wisdom and resources, Vandana believes public health professionals can create strong and sustainable community-based response systems in all areas, even after withdrawal of external aid.