A trip to India opened a new window into medicine for GP Dr Jennie Connaughton
Dr Jennie Connaughton says she was a disillusioned medical student when she took a year off to travel. Armed with a backpack, a passport, and good intentions to do “something useful somewhere”, she wound up in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, where she lent an extra pair of hands to help malnourished children.
These days Dr Connaughton — now an established GP in WA — is lending her support to the same cause in a very different way. She’s founded CINI Australia (http://www.ciniaustralia.org), a new arm of the Child In Need Institute, India (CINI), the charitable organisation that helped her gain a new perspective on medicine 37 years ago.
Back then, she says, she spent most of her days in Kolkata feeding children, carting water and helping in the day care centre. These days, her mission with CINI Australia is to raise funds and ensure more Australians know about the organisation’s remarkable work.
Dr Connaughton says she’s remained loyal to CINI because of the organisation’s proven credentials in creating lasting change in the lives of very disadvantaged women and their families. “I was only 20 with no clinical skills but I was really moved by what was happening. It was not only about feeding the children here and now, it was about giving people the skills to improve their own life in a way that would carry through to the next generation”, she says.
While the organisation was in its infancy back then, it now employs 500 local people using the same philosophy of empowering local communities.
CINI was founded by a Bengali paediatrician, Dr Chaudhuri, and an Australian nun and nutritionist, Sister Pauline Prince. They knew that the key to lasting change lay in educating the women in the community. They began by training seven young local mothers as health workers.
“I saw these young people with little education become teachers and heath workers for their community. They were immunising, diagnosing simple illnesses like worms and diarrhoea and prescribing treatment. I saw that with the right education and motivation, people with few skills can do a great job, and I was profoundly affected by this — the compassion, fun and simplicity and power of it.”
She says this lesson also translates to her practice as a GP in Australia. “For me it’s about the condition belonging to the person. Rather than me just providing them with a prescription, we tackle the problem in partnership”. Dr Connaughton says she finds this approach especially effective in patients with chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. “It can really help if the patient understands their illness because then they can help to figure out what role they can play in easing it. That way, as they get better the patient knows it is through their participation.”
Dr Connaughton says her experiences with CINI have also helped with the short-term locum work she does in rural and remote Australia. “It taught me that our Western point of view is just one point of view. It’s about respecting a different story — in fact, this understanding alone has had a huge influence on my career.”
Dr Connaughton has established CINI Australia to help drum up Australian support for specific CINI programs to help rural mothers from early pregnancy until their child is aged 2, and to educate children in urban slums.
“Initially it’s about fundraising. I’ve seen firsthand how a really small amount of money can support something very significant in a way that has a lasting effect”, she says. For instance, it costs just $1.40 annually per patient to roll out CINI’s community programs and Dr Connaughton’s target is to support about 40 000 people.
So far, CINI Australia has sent $28 000 to India, with plans to send a further $30–40 000 by June this year.
She says that although the CINI Australia side of her work is taxing, she has lots of support from family and friends. Her locum work also helps to sustain her. “When I’m out there surrounded by the Australian landscape, I feel as if I’m the luckiest person on earth. Remote work is food for my soul.”
She says her two passions, CINI and remote locum work, do contrast, but they have fundamental similarities.
“They are both about people who live in great difficulty and who don’t have the material and financial abundance that we consider normal. Neither group has a lot of power in the bigger system of the country they live in. I see it now as my job to share what I know in a way that’s most useful to those people.”
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