When I drove into Rishi Valley on my first day, I couldn't help but think I had stepped into a scene from the Jungle Book. The village is located in the Chitoor District in Andhra Pradesh, India. A dusty road snakes through the hills from the highway, past the health center and the education center, and leads to the school. Picturesque boulders, rolling hillocks, and large leafy trees define the landscape.
The first set of buildings is the Rishi Valley Rural Health Center, where I will be working. It consists of three buildings: a laboratory, a records building with some patient rooms, and the new doctor's offices. I was surprised to see the buildings were in such good condition. I suppose I imagined a mud hut, or one of the ram shackled buildings that house restaurants and junk shops that usually line such roads. Instead, I found a legitimate clinic. Nevertheless, there was no mistaking this for a rural health center. Along with hordes of frogs and scurrying scorpions, throngs of villagers wait in the hot sun to see one of the three doctors.
Further up the road lies the school. I will be staying in what is lovingly called the "Old New Guest House." Whatever that means. Although it is a long and convoluted story, I can say that there used to be an Old Old Guest House and there currently exists a New New Guest House. My room is on the second floor, which is nice because most of the scorpions and frogs can't make it up that far. It does, however, subject me to a troop of monkeys that reside in a jamun tree overhanging the balcony. Every morning I leave the room, they begin pelting me with seeds. Monkeys never respected me, despite the fact that my family is convinced that I am one in disguise. The room itself is quite big, though teeming with invertebrate roommates and eastern shower facilities (a bucket). Nevertheless, I would take this room over my college dorm room any day.
All this provides the setting for my project: creating a medical information system. The first part entails digitizing tens of thousands of records. Once all the records have been digitized, the goal is to create a living map so that doctors can see where certain diseases come from, and if there are any social factors that can be addressed to better health. For instance, if farmers from a certain village are experiencing higher rates of diabetes, this increase in disease burden may be traced to pesticide use. The Rural Health Center gets about 10,000 patients a year, so this is a long-term project. Though at first I thought that this would be a boring, data entry type job, I soon came to realize that reading through medical records was very interesting. The records have been organized by each family, so each record is like reading a story.
One of the more interesting stories was a woman who, for months, complained of hypertension and general aches and pains. These are very common complaints, so the doctors first prescribed proper diet and exercise. As her condition did not improve, medication was also prescribed, but did not alleviate her symptoms. Months later, her son came in with complaints of hearing voices. He had lost his job, couldn't pay attention to his family, and couldn't function any more. The patient had developed paranoid schizophrenia. In turn, the mother was depressed by her son's failings and this depression caused her symptoms. Hardly the normal, boring data entry job.