Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Long Prep

I tried to think of everything I must do to prepare for my Fellowship. There were so many things to do that I had to break it up into categories:

  • Share with friends and family (check!) - and explain to them what I'll be doing and why the heck I thought it was important to do something that entails leaving for 5+ months (still working on that)
  • Get a better understanding of India - its people, history, culture, and spirituality (all those things are tightly intertwined)
  • Contact past Global Health Fellows who have worked with CARE India, to get tips on working with the organization, how to assimilate locally, and what to do while there
  • Vaccinations!!!  (and other health matters)
  • Visas - most importantly for India, but also for any other country I might have the occasion to visit while there (Bangladesh, maybe Nepal?)
  • Talk with CARE India about the fellowship projects, and start doing some research on my own time
  • Start buying and organizing the things I need for the long trip (mostly medicine-cabinet related, but also other supplies and comfort items)
  • Contact people I know in India, or who might be nearby, to let them know I'll be in Delhi
  • Make sure I'm able to Skype efficiently 
  • Buy the plane ticket (work covers it, but I have to make the arrangements)
  • And, of course, attend all trainings from work
I feel that, with 3+ months to go, I've got a good start on the list.

 Share with friends and family

After telling my immediate family and close co-workers - the people I see all the time - I posted on Facebook, and let the word trickle out. About a month ago, word also went out internal to Pfizer about the group of us who will be venturing out on Fellowships this year.

Since then, I've received a lot of great feedback from people - and of course some head scratching. The toughest, I think, is family who don't quite "get" why someone would do something like this - especially someone with a spouse and three children at home. I try to explain the best I can about the VERY long time I've been dreaming of a chance to do something like this, about why it's important to me to try to make a difference in others' lives, the excitement of being immersed in another culture, how I think this will change my life by helping clarify what my higher purpose - and maybe longer-term career will be about...and how I want to use this as an example for my children to think about their place in the world, and maybe what they can do to change it. It's not always easy to communicate all of that...

Get a better understanding of India

Can anyone ever truly understand India? I don't know. On one hand, we see the beauty, the spirit and spirituality and intelligence of its people - and on the other the poverty, health issues, the overcrowded cities. I have been seeking out a few difference sources to help me get a better grasp. On the recommendation of a friend, I watched the 6-part BBC series, "The Story of India," which turned out to be a great overview of the long history of the subcontinent from its earliest civilization through the country it has become today. It spurred me to pull out some dusty paperback versions of the Mahabharata and the Upanishads, the Rig Veda, and the Bhagavad Gita. I haven't worked my way through them all, but even at a summary level, it gives some insight into both the spiritualism and the practicality of India. I've also been doing what I usually do when I travel to someplace new - reading a guidebook. My office mate, Rockwell, gave me a great present of a Lonely Planet guide for India, and it has already been a great resource to understanding the layout of the country and the important things to see, do, and understand.

Contact Past Fellows

I had the pleasure of speaking with past CARE India Fellows Janna, Crystal, Carrianne, and Melinda, who during and after the application process gave me a HUGE amount of great information about living in India, working with the great crew at CARE, and about the types of work I might be doing. I am sure I will continue to pick their brains as May 24th (my departure date) draws near!

Medical stuff

Wow. I have never had so many shots. TDAP, Hep A, Hep B, Polio, Japanese Encephalitis vaccines so far, and (if I can get it) Rabies still to go (plus the Typhoid vaccine in pill form). I will have to start taking a malaria preventative a couple of weeks before leaving as well. I've had bloodwork done, and have another overall health check before I go. And I've also had to catch up on vision and dental visits, as I won't otherwise be able to do that until the end of the year. I've also been advised to bring lots of meds with me, including antibiotics (Cipro, Z-Packs) and anything to help combat Delhi Belly (Pepto, Immodium, etc). Fun!


I'm used to going through a passport and visa service here at work, so it will be my first time going straight to the consulates to get visas (though for India, most of it is online). I hope to have it all squared away by the end of March so that I don't have to worry about it as the departure approaches.

Meeting with CARE

I've had a first meeting, and it sounds like the project work will really be fascinating. The proimary project they've mentioned is setting up a program to eliminate Kala Azar, or visceral leishmaniasis, in India. Kala Azar is a disease caused by a protozoan (similarly to malaria) that is transmitted by the bite of a sand fly. It is indigenous to some provinces in India (especially Bihar and West Bengal) as well as Bangladesh.  I'll be spending time both in the Delhi main office as well as the Patna office in Bihar, and will take part in some field visits as well in and around Bihar. I've also started to do a little basic research on the disease itself and what has been done already to combat it and its sand fly vector. More on that later!

Gearing up

Costco is going to be very helpful here. I have to think about the healthcare needs, but also comfort items. I'm stocking up some e-books for reading material as well, and of course I'm sure I'll think of a million other things in the weeks before I leave. I've decided to wait until I arrive to purchase some climate-appropriate clothes - as I understand the prices can be a little lower there!

Contacting people in the region

I was very happy to find out that a couple of friends will be visiting India and Bangladesh while I'm going the be there! One of the stipulations of the GHF program is that we cannot take vacation during the Fellowship itself, but we are encouraged to do so on our own time. I hope to at least have a couple of weekends free that coincide with my friends' visits. In addition, my wonderful Pfizer colleagues in India have offered help and guidance while I am in-country - so I hope to take advantage of their kind offers!

Technology and communications

I am no techie whiz, that's for sure, but I do need to start making sure I'm set up to speak daily with my family through Skype. CARE is kind enough to provide me with a laptop and cell phone for use while I am in India, so I don't have to bring my own along.

Plane Ticket

Found a good deal on United - direct flight! I'm hoping beyond hope that I might be able to leverage my status and/or miles on United to upgrade to Business Class...but otherwise it should be a fun, 15-hour ride in coach. 

Work training

Oonagh and the GHF team have a terrific program set up to provide us Fellows with background in consulting, International Development, safety, and communications so that we are better able to prepare for the trip. We have already had a good part of the training sessions, with a few left to go! The program also provides Communications and Security contacts to ensure we are ready for whatever comes our way.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Global Health Fellowship - 2013

In early December of last year (2012), I learned that my company, Pfizer Inc, had selected me as one of its Global Health Fellows for 2013. For the next year or so, this blog will be dedicated to this Fellowship program.

Tuesday, Feb 12, 2013 - The Story So Far:

The story really begins back in 2006, when I first heard about the Global Health Fellowship (GHF) program, back when it was still fairly new. I spoke to a couple of colleagues who took part in the program, and it sounded like a life-changing experience for each. This especially intrigued me as I've always felt a calling to service - including considering joining the Peace Corps as a teenager - but because I had always struggled with that big question of What To Do With My Life, I never formulated a plan to put this calling into action. By the time I started business school in 1998, I was married with one child, Veronika (with my second, Josephine, born while there), and an inkling of a potential career, so that calling was put on the back burner.

But only for a while! Hearing about this program gave me hope that I would be able to get at least a taste of helping those in developing countries without having to take the huge risk of leaving my career track (especially with all those pesky student loans). The Fellowships are essentially an opportunity for Pfizer to provide pro-bono consulting to non-profit organizations in developing countries with great need - where everyone gains something (Fellows get exposure to a completely new world, and develop new skills in leading projects; NGOs get months of free time from someone with corporate leadership experience and some form of functional expertise, and Pfizer gets better-rounded employees who develop new, valuable leadership skills). I learned a lot about the GHF program back then, and followed it throughout my Pfizer career, but with multiple job changes and moves to different states (Connecticut, California, back to Connecticut, and now NY), as well as the birth of our third child, Gabriela, the time really never felt right.

But 2012 was different. My wife, Kasia, and I had spoken at length about my desire to take part in this program, and she has always voiced her strong support (despite the hardships I know it would place on her, taking care of three children while also attending to her own career). I came to realize that 2013 may be my last chance for a while to become a Fellow - all three of my daughters would be continuing in their current schools here in NYC for at least another year, but the summer of 2014 will bring college tours for Veronika; 2015 will be the start of her Freshman year, and then the process begins again in 2016 for Josephine.

So, recognizing that this is probably my last chance - at least for many years - to do this without missing these major milestones for my daughters, I watched and waited carefully for the start of the 2013 application process, in July of last summer.

The process entailed a long application, with multiple essays about my motivations for applying to become a Fellow, my experience in working across cultures and traveling to other countries, and my volunteering background. I solicited advice from friends and colleagues who had taken part in the program, and others who have lived and worked in developing countries and who had worked with not-for-profit Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in the past - my officemate, Rockwell, was an especially great resource, as he had worked for Population Services, International (PSI) in Africa prior to his career at Pfizer. After a month of crafting the essays, and with a recommendation letter from my then-manager, Savitri, I finally submitted my application in August.

The almost four months of waiting for the results was gut-wrenching. Pfizer lets you apply as many times as you want to until you're accepted, but knowing I really just had this one shot to do this really had me sweating. In October, I found that I'd been selected to the final round - very exciting! - but I was still one of four candidates for a Fellowship in India, with interviews with the NGO (CARE India) and the internal GHF team still to go. My interviews were delayed thanks to Hurricane Sandy, stretching out the waiting process even further. Finally, after a great conversation (with lots of questions in both directions) with the CARE team in New Delhi and a brief interview with our GHF team leader, Oonagh, and Pfizer Global Security, I learned on December 4th - in the middle of a huge team meeting - that I was accepted into the program. I would be heading to Delhi for a five-month fellowship!

After sharing the news with my wife, family, friends, and colleagues, I gave myself a little time to celebrate before getting overwhelmed with the huge amount of preparation required for such a journey.