By Piia Hanson, Project Restauración Global Health Volunteer, March-April 2018
I quit my job to go volunteer in the Dominican Republic...
in a community that has limited electricity and running water, and almost never any hot water. What on earth was I thinking?! Even as I write about it, part of me feels courageous, but the other part of me wants to put myself in time out. I mean seriously, who does that?! Who gives up a good job to go volunteer, with no job to return to, and no steady paycheck or benefits? And how did I come to a place where this was even an option? It pretty much goes against everything that I was taught. But it happened – it was my reality. And like most intriguing stories that you hear, this one also begins with, “You see what had happened was….”
So you see, what had happened was, I needed a change. And after months of debating with myself, I finally gave myself permission to take the leap, and dare to do something different. Up to this point, my career trajectory was, certainly not intentional but quite streamlined and safe. What I was about to embark on, however, was risky and uncomfortable, which was not me at all.
When I came to this decision, I was an executive at a state agency in charge of a $47 million budget, overseeing multiple staff and contractors. I taught college students on the side, I had two Masters degrees and I sat on numerous national committees. Getting to this point in my career was quite a winding road, and actually involves Starbucks if you can believe it! But let me begin at the beginning to give you some context…
When I graduated from college, I had dreams of going to medical school, but alas, I did not get in. So I did the responsible thing and got a job while I continued to try for med school, which by the way, never happened. I moved to St. Louis, MO and worked at WASHU in a Leukemia lab for several years before being tapped on the shoulder by my boss’s, boss’s, boss to come work in his Diabetes lab. I’m a scientist at heart so I really enjoyed the experience. I loved my time in the hood and with the microscope and found it fulfilling to be in a place where I was not only constantly learning, but creating new knowledge by publishing papers, and sharing knowledge by delivering grand rounds. During this time, the University was giving funds to faculty, students and staff to purchase property near the school so I decided to buy a house.
I purchased the house for a steal, but it needed a lot of work. I didn’t want to touch my savings account, so I got a second job to help cover the renovation, and since I’m a coffee lover, I decided to work at the Starbucks right down the street from the lab. #Winning! While working one night, a young woman came in to have coffee with friends and she brought her toddler along. She ordered a coffee for herself, and a Frappuccino and a huge cookie for the toddler. The first thought that came to my mind was ‘That child is going to lose a foot by the time he’s 40, and it’s going to be all your fault!’ Of course, I couldn’t say that, so I pleasantly handed over the order. Now, folks who have heard me speak before, know this as my ‘Starbucks Story’. This was that defining moment that changed everything.
You know how once you know something, you can’t go back to not knowing it?
After that encounter, I realized that while the work I was doing in the lab was really important, it was actually more important for me to do work that was going to make a difference in my life time and allow people to live a better life. I didn’t quite know what to do with this knowledge so I did what I do best…research. I began researching career options that would allow me to build on what I had learned while also making an impact. The more I learned about public health, the more I realized that this was the path for me. So I took the GRE, applied for an MSPH program at one school, and got in. Hallelujah! I packed my bags, secured the house, and relocated to Nashville, TN. By the way, the house ended up being a never-ending project, but we’ll cover that at a different time!
If you’re taking notes, you’ll note that this is my 1st career transition and the 1st time I decided to take the leap when it comes to my career. Don’t worry; there is no test after this. My time in Nashville was amazing, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. While it was not part of what I thought I wanted to do, it was absolutely what I was destined to do. I learned so much about the intersections of healthcare, biomedical science, public health, health policy, systems building, health equity, community-based participatory research, and health reform. Really fascinating stuff! And the food and music were a bonus! After graduation, I moved to DC to take a position at a national Maternal and Child Health non-profit where I was able to apply what I had learned to aid state directors across the US. After a few years of growing within the organization, I then accepted a position at the DC Dept of Health in hopes that I could positively impact families’ lives there in the District. I actually only kept this position for one year before relocating to Louisiana to take a position at the LA Dept of Health. In full transparency, I moved to LA because I wanted to be closer to home since my baby sister was having a baby. It wasn’t at all about the job – it was about family, but the job ended up working out.
I learned a lot by working with and at state health departments, and this was knowledge that you don’t learn in school – it has to be boots on the ground. Mostly I learned that real change takes time, and you must account for how politics can impact operationalizing positive change. One can have good intentions to do good work, but this must be done within the parameters of the state’s priorities. I felt really accomplished by everything that I had achieved thus far, but I had also come to a point where I had lost touch with what really mattered, and because the policy work I did was quite far removed from the community, I found it difficult to actually make an impact. It felt like something was missing.
So, as I alluded to earlier, I debated on my next steps for quite some time. I always knew that one day I wanted to do a mission trip, and also a Spanish immersion program, and perhaps even a global public health volunteer program. But ‘one day’ always seemed so far away. Plus, asixe from my friend Nomadobgyn, no one I knew really did things like that, so it was a bit of a dream. But then after a series of events a work, coupled with burying my cousin who suffered from PTSD, coupled with my longing to make an impact, I decided that I would make one day…today. After all, what did I have to lose? And I think it was icing on the cake that shortly after this realization, I heard Reba McEntire’s song, Is There Life Out There on the radio, and the words reverberated in my head…. "She’s done what she should, should she do what she dares?" It’s random, I know, but I’m from Texas and I happen to like country music!
Back to my first love of research, I began researching programs that would fulfill the above criteria, and I discovered FIMRC and Project Restauración. Jackpot! I had a few email exchanges with headquarters to determine if this was really the right fit, and then I decided to make it happen. I knew I wanted an extended time frame so I had to decide if I was taking vacation time, or going on leave for a sabbatical or if I was going to quit. And you’ve already had the spoiler alert, so you know that I decided on Door #3, to quit. Hence, career transition and taking the leap #2.
Please know that I did not take this decision lightly.
I planned for it with many conversations with my financial planner and with my supervisor (Side note - if you don’t have a financial planner, get one asap. I started working with mine with only $23 in savings, so trust me, if they’ll work with me, they’ll work with anybody!). Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that after my volunteer experience, it would be time to move on and do something different with my career. I didn’t think I would be able to have this experience, and then come back to doing the same work. Plus I had aspirations of doing a few other entrepreneurial ventures which I kept putting off and talking myself out of. So if I was going to take the leap, this was the time to do it.
Want to know something funny? When I announced my departure to my staff and the department, and that I was leaving to go volunteer, that I didn’t really have a solid plan when I returned, and that I would explore options as they presented themselves, my office was flooded with people who told me how brave I was, and they admired me and how they had always wanted to do something like that ‘one day’ but they never thought they could. People shared stories (and some tears) of opportunities they passed on because of fear. My decision ended up bringing hope to a lot of people. Talk about unanticipated consequences! I had no clue that my actions would have this kind of impact. In a way, I was still coming to terms with my decision, but these interactions helped me to know that I was making the right choice to dare to do something different.
So, on March 30th, I arrived at the Santiago, Dominican Republic airport and made the three and a half hour journey up the mountain to Restauración. The experience was better than I could have imagined. It has reframed my perspective on so many things... namely what it means to live.
If you haven’t volunteered with FIMRC yet and you’re on the fence about going, I say take the leap - it’s a truly rewarding experience!
If you have volunteered and you’re at a point in your career where you’re debating next steps, I’d say go with your gut, and take the leap! We always hear people say that life is short, but not many people live like they actually believe it. Don’t be that person. Take the leap!
The Trip Itself & Piia's Steps Ahead:
I had the amazing opportunity to develop and deliver disease prevention presentations to various schools and also a women's group, shadow a doctor at both the local hospital and clinic, conduct a focus group with local community health workers regarding current and anticipated needs, assist with taking vitals and supplying much needed medications at the weekly Diabetes Club in several towns, assist with providing care and medications at a mobile clinic, evaluate the effectiveness of current programs to make recommendations for improvement, and last but certainly not least, I was able to assist the local Field Operations Managers with settling into the new office space which will help provide a productive working environment for future FIMRC volunteers.
I found it quite gratifying to use my knowledge, skills and ability to provide immediate help to a community and see the impact of my work in real time. This experience has already impacted my professional career, as I returned and immediately joined the board of a local organization that provides housing, health and social service navigation support for women in poverty. It's hard work, but it's so gratifying! Additionally, it is my goal to apply what I've learned from my Project Restauración experience by starting my own public health consulting firm to assist organizations with their efforts to advance health outcomes for families in need, at a local, state and national level. I've seen firsthand, how resourceful the families in the Dominican Republic and Haiti are, and I would be remiss to not use this learning to help positively impact our systems here in the US.
About Piia Hanson:
Piia T Hanson truly embodies Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous quote “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” Through her past roles with academic institutions, government agencies and national non-profits, she has been committed to improving the quality and access of care for underserved children and families, and to changing the systems which perpetuate inequities that lead to adverse health outcomes. As adjunct faculty at George Mason University, Ms. Hanson teaches women’s health to upper-level students and guides them through the examination of health issues unique to women, including health care, food and exercise, reproductive and gynecological issues, chronic diseases, and issues of violence. Ms. Hanson was recently recognized for her efforts to make a lasting impact in the field of Maternal and Child Health by receiving the APHA MCH Young Professional of the Year award. She serves on numerous national committees and has been a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc for more than 20 years. She is also an active participant in her church’s weekly women’s small group, and volunteers regularly to teach children’s bible study, and to serve meals at a local homeless shelter. Ms. Hanson received a Baccalaureate in Biology from Xavier University of Louisiana, her Masters of Science in Public Health degree from Meharry Medical College, a certificate in Health Policy through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Center for Health Policy at Meharry, and her Masters in Business Administration from the University of Maryland University College. She was a fellow of the prestigious Maternal Child Health Public Health Leadership Institute at the University of North Carolina, and she received an executive education in Design Thinking for Healthcare Leaders from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. Ms. Hanson is a proud sustainer member to both of her Alma Maters and also various charities. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, cooking and exercising. She has recently completed her 18th half marathon and 3rd triathlon.