2005 PFIG Recipient Svetlana Lantsman
College of Arts & Sciences
Biology and English
2006 Graduation Year
Internship: National Women's Health Network
Notes on the first week
Here I am in Washington DC, capital of idealism and cynicism alike. For the next two months—June and July—I’ll be working at the National Women’s Health Network, doing my best make a difference in women’s health care issues. NWHN has two agendas, one is to empower women by providing them with information to make informed health decisions and the other is to lobby US government, advocating policies that are just for all women and are based on solid scientific evidence.
One thing I’ve been doing this week is researching several medical conditions. Women call and email the network with health questions and interns research these subjects and relay this information to the women who are seeking help—we do not advise or make decisions for these women, but rather give them the resources that will allow them to evaluate and make autonomous decisions. So far I’ve been researching a condition called uterine prolapse (in which muscles that hold the uterus in place relax, thus allowing the uterus to descend into the vagina); also I’ve been helping two women—with two different conditions—find alternatives to the hysterectomies their OB/GYN suggested.
I also attended two meetings, one a policy briefing "on the Hill" (i.e. for US Congressmen) about "obstetric fistula," an injury that women in developing countries get when they endure long, obstructed labor without adequate medical intervention. Fistula has been virtually eliminated in the US because we have doctors and a health care system that provides treatment to prevent it. The other meeting was sponsored by AFL-CIO and discussed ways of establishing universal health care system in America through state-based initiatives.
By this point I expected my internship at National Women’s Health Network to become routine. However, it has been anything but predictable. Daily phone calls from various patients introduce me to different medical conditions, such as trigeminal neuralgia and multiple myeloma. I am also learning about current medical issues such as hormone replacement therapy and the reintroduction of silicone breast implants. The Network addresses the medical and scientific aspects of these issues as well as the consumer and political features. For instance, we provide patients with necessary information about medical issues, and we review scientific studies to evaluate the safety and therapeutic potential of these therapies. Moreover, we monitor the activities of the Food and Drug Administration and the influence of pharmaceutical companies on governmental policies.
I am beginning to learn about how the Network operates and to understand the inner working of feminist health activism. This further understanding is a result of the interns meeting with each member of the Network’s staff to learn about membership, fundraising, and programming. We also had a long lunch with a member of the Network’s board who also works for the National Organization of Women (NOW) Legal Defense Fund. She talked to us about her work on various projects such as the Violence Against Women Act, the Welfare Reform bill, and the appointment of a new Supreme Court Justice.
I continue to attend meetings on Capitol Hill and around Washington DC on such varied topics as stem cell research and Medicaid prescription drugs. One of the most interesting meetings I recently attended was a round-table debate on the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Members of the Senate committee gathered a number people representing concerned citizens and organizations to discuss the proposed changes to the FMLA. My work at the Network continues to challenge and surprise me everyday.
As my internship drew to a close, I wondered how to synthesize the experience that has been so varied in width as well as in depth. In my last few weeks at the National Women’s Health Network I continued to explore the intersection between science and politics, between medicine and society. I worked with a woman who had had a stroke a few years earlier and was now paralyzed; she required a wheelchair and round the clock nursing care. She called us because her wheelchair had broken down and she was now confined to bed. Unfortunately, Medicare would not pay both for a new wheelchair and the nursing assistance she was receiving. This woman faced an impossible choice: either give up the little freedom that a wheelchair provided or give up the comfort and safety of home assistance. I regret to admit that there was little I could do and no way the Network could help. On behalf of this woman, I called a number of philanthropic associations and organizations for disabled people, but with little luck. Calls like this (and there were at least 1-2 calls a week from people who didn’t have insurance or could not get their insurance to cover their medical expenses) were very hard to handle, as there was usually little help we could provide, but they reminded me of why I was in Washington DC. This was a city that contained the power to change individual lives, as well as the lives of communities. In Washington DC, though I could not find a way to finance a wheelchair, I could work to extend medical benefits to the most needy, the poor and the disabled. It would only take time.