An Edina doctor says a trip to India showed her the need to improve health care in other parts of the world.
Donna Block, M.D. runs an OBGYN clinic in Edina that takes a broader view of women's health - talking about skin care, stress, producing CDs for new moms. This is the waiting room which features bouquets of flowers, large oil paintings, ice cold drinking water and chocolate.
Donna Block, an obstetrician and gynecologist, says she started her private group practice at Clinic Sofia in Edina to make health and wellness decisions easier.
Block traveled to India in March as part of the Women's Leadership Board at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, an international group of women in government, business and the nonprofit sector.
She said the trip stoked her desire to make health care information and tools more readily available to women across the globe. Block talked about her experiences with the Star Tribune.
QThe trip to India focused on women and leadership, but did you have a chance to visit any medical clinics?
AI went with my daughter, who is a nurse, to one of the better clinics in Chennai. It was eye-opening and disturbing. ... It's very different than our approach. We're unbelievably regulated here. We pay close attention to sterility, doing the right procedures and consents. If you have a specimen, it leaves the room immediately in a sterile container. I don't want to disrespect them because they're doing the best that they can. But there was a piece of tissue in a pan in an operating room, where there was somebody else on the table. It wasn't his specimen. In the waiting area, there was a door that said "Ultrasound," and a sign that said, "We will not tell you the gender of your baby." I asked the doctor about it. She said if the child is a girl, the man will divorce the woman.
QWhat was it like to visit the slums of Mumbai?
AWhen you first see it, you think it's devastating. But walking through it, you see this is a vibrant community. They are neighbors sharing things. Ladies are standing around chitchatting like we women do. They're cleaning homes, making terra cotta pots, sitting on the ground and rolling out these "tortillas" on a stone by the front door. They used to have tons and tons of babies. Now women on average have two. When women started working and providing more for the home, they had fewer children.
QYou also went to the red light district in Mumbai. What was that like?
AThis speaks to the poverty. These girls come from rural areas. The families are poor, and they sell their daughters. When they would see our white faces come by, they'd cover their faces with fear and shame that their families would see what happened to them. We walked by one door, and a 14- or 15-year-old girl was sitting on the doorstep breast feeding her baby. I was told most babies are just left in the doorstep, that life has no value here.
Once you get to certain age or advanced HIV, they throw you to the street. As we were going around you'd see the pimp sitting on the bench and the girl sitting on the edge. They're extremely controlled. They can't talk to anybody and they don't get any money. It was really distressing to see women treated as chattel. They have no place to run away to. There are no services. People just look down on them.
QClinic Sofia sponsored a girl through the I Live 2 Lead organization. Tell me about that.
AI Live 2 Lead is a nonprofit that offers leadership skill development for 15 to 21 year olds from around the world. They selected 20 young girls in India who had to come up with a specific project. Because of the poverty, if a family has more than one child and one is a boy, they often will educate the son. I Live 2 Lead is saying to the girls, "We're going to give you opportunity. You have to work hard for it, but with this opportunity, you can open more doors for yourself." They taught them some basic etiquette things to prepare them for a better life ahead. For example, they wash their clothes but they don't necessarily bathe very often. When the girls came together for four or five days, there was no sense of caste among them -- this one was the same as that one. We hope the girls will keep in touch.
QAny lessons learned?
AWe take for granted the health and wellness and economics that we have in our country. If we could do anything for the slum, it's to give them some sanitation and provide better education. There also are some basic things they need, like vaccinations. If one child gets Rubella, it could wipe out the entire community. I used to think if we just gave women the tools to stay healthy, that they could empower themselves to make better choices and take care of their families. I'm more aware now that it's also an economic and social issue -- and it requires a commitment from government toward public policy.
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335