BHP husband and wife duo Neel and Bridgette Naik have taken a different route from many of our grads and are making strides in the arena of AIDS care in Africa. Neel, BBA ’05, a doctor, and Bridgette, BBA, MPA ’06, an accountant, moved to Tanzania earlier this year to work for the Baylor College of Medicine International Pediatrics AIDS Initiative (BIPAI). Bridgette helps run the business side of the clinic in Tanzania, and Neel is one of the physicians there. We caught up with the two of them recently to learn more about how their work is going.
Tell me a bit more about what each of you are doing now.
Bridgette: I do some finance and accounting, as well as budgeting and grants for the clinic. I also deal with a lot of HR and management issues. Before taking this job, I worked in public accounting as an auditor for about 5 years. I was working a lot and wasn’t happy. I wanted something more fulfilling and then I found this job with BIPAI and have been there over a year now.
Neel: BIPAI sends doctors from the U.S. to clinics in Africa, so I am working for a clinic in Tanzania. I provide care for children with HIV. I also train general practitioners there to support the clinic. During my residency I completed an elective with the organization while Bridgette was searching for non-profit jobs. She found a position with the organization, which she knew about from my rotation. It was great how it worked out, because we were both able to come for our jobs.
How has it been for you being partners in life and in work?
Neel: It is nice. We’re able to have lunch together.. We drive to work together. We don’t have too much direct work interaction, but we get to see the clinic from different vantages, which is interesting.
Are you ever at odds with each other on matters regarding the clinic where the medical needs may not align with the financial and business needs?
Bridgette: Not really, but there are times when Neel can provide insight into issues I face. Patients are always asking for things, and Neel can fill me in on if they really need them and their availability. Neel is always looking for how to start new initiatives for better care, but I manage our budget and have to be mindful of operating costs and salaries.
Why were you drawn to AIDS work?
Neel: We were drawn to the opportunity to travel to a country that needs help and has a big need for medical care. It has also been interesting to learn medicine in a different setting. In the U.S. we have so much technology at our fingertips. It isn’t like that here. For example, here we only have X-rays, we don’t have CT scans. I think that has helped me grow my skills. I also see diseases I would never see in the states. It is a good cause and our work does make a difference; it gives kids access to care and medicine that can help them live a healthy life. I feel good about myself every day, since I am working towards making a difference in the AIDS epidemic.
Your resume says you work with around 700 HIV infected children. That is a staggering number. What is that like for you?
Neel: The number is closer to 1,000 now. There are 160,000 children infected with HIV in Tanzania. Of those, only 17 percent are on medications, either because they don’t know they are infected or do not have access to medications. Also only 59 percent of mothers are receiving medications to prevent transmission to their babies. Here there is just not much access to care. We have a lot of work to do, but that is why we are here. We have a big team here with two clinics. I see about 10-15 patients a day. The patient cases are more complex and take longer, so that is why we can’t see as many patients each day. We also focus on the whole patient, not just HIV, but everything. We have a social worker and counselor. It’s tough because death is more common here and the public hospital is pretty inefficient and isn’t the level of care I am used to. I am one more doctor in a county that doesn’t have that many, which helps. I do really worry about my patients. These are very sick children.
What are the difficulties and frustrations of practicing medicine in Tanzania?
Neel: The social aspect of medicine here is dire. Many of our children live with other family members because their parents have died. Some of those caretakers are good but others are not. There isn’t child protective services here. Finances play a big role: not only does it prevent some patients from furthering their education, but it also may jeopardize their health. Sometimes parents can’t afford the medicine a child needs, or even the proper food to help them grow. This is mitigated for our patients by our clinic because it provides all its medicines for free and also provides Plumpy Nut to patients who are severely malnourished. However, if we don’t have a medication in our stock that is needed, then it is up to our personal donations. For example $350 pays for an entire chemotherapy regimen for Kaposi’s Sarcoma, but for most people here that is unaffordable. And it seems silly that a child’s cancer can’t be treated because of $350. Having said all that, with all the lows, there are also ups. We have a dedicated staff, a teen club support group, and a program called Stitch by Stitch that teaches girls from our clinic how to tailor bags and run a business. I can honestly say that we have saved the lives of dying children, which unlike shows such as ER or Grey’s Anatomy may make it seem, doesn’t happen every day. So overall for all its frustrations it is equally inspiring. With all the problems we face, at least each day we make progress and move forward.
What is daily life like for you guys now?
Bridgette: First, Tanzania is a beautiful tropical country. The Serengeti National Park is only a 2 hour drive from our house, so we’ve been able to go on a few safaris. We can see Lake Victoria from our porch and the scenery is very pretty. Driving here is crazy. There are carts, people, potholes, and motorcycles everywhere. There are about 1 million people here and there are only a couple ‘grocery stores’ with limited items from home that are very expensive. The other day we bought a bottle of syrup that was about $8, but well worth it for our pancakes. We do most of our shopping at an outdoor market and that is definitely more interesting and lively than HEB. Since there isn’t much to do in town, like there isn’t even a movie theater, we spend a lot of our free time swimming, reading, cooking, and talking to our family on Skype.
Any advice for current students or things you wish you had known?
Bridgette: You can apply the skills that you have learned in BHP in a variety of occupations. Think outside the box about how you would like to contribute to society. You probably have the skills to make your passions into a career. You never know where you will end up. Although your first job may not be the one you have forever, you will learn a lot from it.
Neel: I still remember my TA in BA 101 told our class that our future jobs should be a balance between our interests and passions, money, and life. That balance is different for everyone and you have to find what works for you. Find your balance and you’ll be happy.