Physician on the front lines: How one 24-year-old doctor is helping improve healthcare for refugees in Sudan
In time for the 2019 One Young World Summit in London, we talk with Rayan Mamoon, a Johnson & Johnson Scholarship recipient, about her work to make life better for the people of her country.
Sometimes it can seem like the world’s problems are far too big for one person to be able to make an impact.
That is, until you hear about the Johnson & Johnson One Young World Scholars—all under-30 leaders from across the globe who are taking big steps to tackle some of our biggest health challenges.
Since 2013, the company has partnered with One Young World to help bring these young leaders together at a global summit each year to share their ideas for change, as well as receive coaching from company executives to help them further develop their innovative ideas.
In advance of this year’s summit in London, we sat down with Johnson & Johnson One Young World Scholarship recipient Rayan Mamoon, a 24-year-old Sudanese doctor, minority health rights activist, researcher and social entrepreneur to learn about the unique program she created to help healthcare professionals in remote and conflict settings in Sudan thrive.
Rayan Mamoon: The first thing I noticed when I walked into one of the tents in Darfur’s Alsalam refugee camp was the young girl’s eyes. They were the most beautiful I’d ever seen—but there was a sadness in them. Alsalam means “peace” in Arabic, but this girl’s situation was anything but that. Looking at the pale, thin, 11-year-old child named Merry, it was clear she’d been badly treated. In fact, she was actually physically restrained. The reason? Her parents thought there were demons living inside her.
But I knew the truth: Merry simply had epilepsy.
Her brothers had it, too, but were treated better because their parents believed that demons only lived in girls. It was heartbreaking. Fortunately, I was able to help the family understand there were medical approaches that could help all of their children—and we got them the medication they needed to help control their epileptic seizures.
It was in that moment in 2016 that I knew I needed to do more for Merry and countless others like her who were subjected to healthcare injustice and inequality, whether due to gender, financial status, societal misconceptions or other reasons.
How this doctor found her true calling in Darfur ...
I never actually wanted to be a doctor, but I found myself in medical school because my grades were high enough to put me there—and, back then, I wasn’t able to talk to my parents about the possibility of doing something else. Despite my lack of interest in medicine, I tried to get the highest grades possible. What can I say, I have a competitive nature.
I became the head of medical missions for an NGO dedicated to addressing the inaccessibility of medical services for refugees in the camps of Darfur. My parents are protective of me and tried to talk me out of going to a conflict area. But I still went.
During medical school, when I was doing rounds at a hospital in Sudan, I frequently witnessed healthcare discrimination. Patients with fewer means were given less access to the best care. It was blatant health inequity.
All I could think was: What can I do for these people?
Around the same time, I volunteered as the head of health education and advocacy for an NGO called Patient Support Organization, where I worked to raise awareness of a number of common yet easily preventable health issues in underserved rural communities, such as teaching best practices to help prevent malaria. In collaboration with federal and state ministries of health and the World Health Organization, I held 36 sessions that educated more than 7,000 people about important preventive care.
Then, in 2016, I became the head of medical missions for another NGO dedicated to addressing the inaccessibility of medical services for refugees in the camps of Darfur. Even though my parents are my biggest supporters, they are also protective of me and tried to talk me out of going to a conflict area. But I still went. That’s when I met Merry—and felt a newfound commitment to bridging the healthcare inequality gap for my people.
The epiphany that led to Courses Cross Borders ...
After three years of volunteering in conflict areas in the Sudan, I realized that while the work I was doing conducting medical missions for a week at a time was important, it wasn’t necessarily sustainable for me. I wanted to work on a more broad-reaching mission that would impact more patients.
Around this time, I reconnected with a friend who was in medical school in Darfur and realized his training wasn’t as thorough as mine had been at a larger medical school. His coursework didn’t involve the same research as mine did, and he wasn’t required to do his own research before graduation, like I was. My friend was so passionate about helping his people, but he lacked the tools I had. In order to get that next level of medical training he would need to go to the capital city of Khartoum—which also meant finding the time and money to travel there to study.
I had an epiphany: I could help create better primary care for thousands of patients if I could help medical students and healthcare workers in remote areas receive a more comprehensive education. So in 2018 I founded Courses Cross Borders, which provides affordable classes and training sessions to healthcare workers and students living in rural and conflict settings in Sudan. We work with accredited health training institutes in Khartoum to get the most up-to-date materials and gain access to specialist trainers.
We focus on the fundamentals of healthcare worker education, ranging from how to conduct a proper medical evaluation to teaching advanced lifesaving techniques. We also teach such career tactics as CV writing and interviewing skills to help with professional advancement.
Perhaps the inherent resilience in all of us is what led Kofi Annan to say this: ‘It’s my aspiration that health finally will be seen not as a blessing to be wished for, but as a human right to be fought for.’
It’s a process that requires synergy as all of us work together to create a brighter future, which is why I am excited to see what kind of collaborations transpire at this year’s One Young World conference. The opportunity to share knowledge, get advice and create smart partnerships is thrilling to me.
I see a future where everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender identity, geographical location, and financial status can access and afford the preventive and curative health services they need. And I believe this future is way more certain if all of us unite to develop the most innovative approaches to deliver healthcare.
The Johnson & Johnson theme at this year’s One Young World Summit is resilience—something I have seen glimmers of in even the most challenging situations. Take my doctor-friend from Darfur, who is now doing research he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to conduct if it weren’t for the training my organization was able to facilitate for him. Or consider Merry, who is now on medication to control her epilepsy.
Perhaps the inherent resilience in all of us is what led Kofi Annan to say this: “It’s my aspiration that health finally will be seen not as a blessing to be wished for, but as a human right to be fought for.”
This inherent resilience in humans is certainly one of the driving forces that’s led me to commit myself to that fight.