By Rahul Puttagunta
By the time my alarm rouses me from a comfortable sleep at 5 a.m., hundreds of patients have already lined up in the darkness outside of Witkoppen Health and Welfare Center.
I arrive at the gate an hour later and usher them inside. As the clinic slowly reaches full operational capacity by 7:30, I collect all the mothers and children who qualify for our FRESH Start program and bring them to our department.
I then spend my favorite few hours of every morning weighing and measuring babies.
The vast majority of the 30-40 babies I see daily range from 6 months down to just 3 days old.
If not for patient confidentiality, I would have the cutest blog on Tumblr.
There’s nothing like watching a six-week-old baby awaken and smile as you tickle his feet and stretch him out on a growth chart.
But then I see the babies who suffer and remember why I’m here.
Sometimes they wail inconsolably and clutch desperately at my chest in hopes of food. Some of their eyes are yellowed with jaundice and others are so frail that their limbs are no thicker than my thumb.
It is for these children and their ailing mothers that this program exists.
I refer the malnourished children to our dietician (or social worker if things are really bad) and send the mothers to the appropriate clinician.
When spare time presents itself, I spend it entertaining the babies under the pretense of giving their mothers a much-needed break.
In the afternoon, I retreat to my desk and begin my administrative duties. These vary every month and range from communicating with donors to creating an electronic database through which defaulters can be tracked.
Currently, I am writing a grant proposal for 1.3 million rands ($130,000) that is due at the end of November.
To think I used to lose sleep over getting A’s and B’s — if this grant is rejected, six of my co-workers and closest friends will lose their jobs.
To bear such a responsibility is why a Minerva Fellow is here, and I do my best to remember that until I leave the clinic around 3 p.m.
As I drive up to the fortified entrance into my gated community, I stop to buy fresh fruit from a local street vendor who also advertises “ganja so nice even white people smoke it.”
I can only pray that he never passes through the gates to see how the white population truly lives.
I place my hand against a fingerprint sensor and smile nervously at the half a dozen armed guards sporting Berettas and Vektor R4 assault rifles. Give them any reason to believe you don’t belong and you will fall victim to their “shoot to kill” policy.
I pass through the gate and enter a selective utopia built upon the ashes and hard work of a third-world country.
Every day I hear the purr of handcrafted Italian engines as supercars prowl through my neighborhood.
I watch black domestic workers working tirelessly to maintain the immaculate landscape.
I force a smile and wave to my 80-year-old neighbor as he hand-washes a vintage 1929 Bentley Speed Six Le Mans Tourer that costs enough to fund my program for the next 10 years.
Such is the life I assimilate into until the sun rises again and I return to the clinic where I belong.
My story is but one facet of the global phenomenon that is Union’s Minerva Fellow program.
You don’t need to be on the Dean’s List or have a thousand hours of community service to apply to become a Minerva Fellow.
It’s no surprise that nine of the 11 Minerva Fellows are Greek — sacrificing personal interests and comfort for the unconditional love of a collective resonates with the Greeks’ and Minerva Fellows’ missions far more than does a GPA.
All you need is an open mind and the courage to handle both pressure and tragedy.
Last month I saw a newborn with anencephaly die in the clinic, and the month before that I was robbed at knifepoint.
And yet I have endured because, as Calvin Coolidge, a famouse fraternity man, once said, “Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
If you have the resolve to make a difference in the world, follow the Fellows’ stories at http://www.union.edu/offices/minerva/fellows/14-15/ and apply for the Minerva Fellowship during your senior year at Union.