Following Your Heart: Fostering an Internal Revolution
A Conversation with Maria Rebollo
Program Director, Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center
Julie: What a pleasure to be with you today, Maria! Let’s begin with the question of how you entered the field of global health. What brought you to this work?
Maria: When I was eleven or twelve years old, I saw on television images and stories about children in Ethiopia and in Somalia going hungry and suffering. I couldn’t think of any other purpose in life that was more compelling than trying to do something for these people. That’s when I decided I was going to work in global health. I had a big fight with my father because he wanted to spend $5,000 to have braces put on my teeth when there were all these children dying of hunger and needing vaccinations and suffering with very serious health problems. I couldn’t see spending money on straightening an overlapped tooth when these children had nothing. I had a deep need to participate in the health care of others. I began dreaming about being a medical doctor in Africa.
Since I was too little to go to Africa, I started to work with people in Spain who had HIV or were homeless. I had to pretend that I was sixteen in order to volunteer with the organizations running these programs because they would not accept someone who was twelve. I helped as I could and saved my money so that when I was older I could travel abroad and help in a foreign country. At seventeen, I pulled all of my savings together and told my parents I was going to Africa. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a place in Africa that would accept me as a volunteer, but I was able to travel to the Philippines. My dream of Africa remained in my heart. When I returned from the Philippines, I started medical school with the idea of becoming a medical doctor and then working in Africa.
In medical school, I was disappointed that the compassion that drove me to want to be a doctor could not be felt at the university. I went to the best university in Spain for medicine. Most of my classmates wanted to be plastic surgeons or cardiologists or something that would make them very rich. It was very competitive with the goal of preparing you to be the best so that you could pass the entrance exam into the residency program. There was nothing about compassion or about serving others. It was more about, “we are the high society, we are the cleverest people, we are the coolest.” I felt empty in this environment.
In my third year of medical school (I was probably twenty years old), I was in the streets one day and saw drug addicts begging. I didn’t have time to stop and help them because I had a pediatrics exam the next day. I realized I didn’t want to live a life where everything was about competition and becoming the best but lacked heart and purpose. I wanted a life where I had time to listen to people and to care for them.
I quit medical school to dedicate more time to those who were suffering. I remember meeting a young Spanish girl, seventeen years old and pregnant. At the center, everyone slept in the same open room, maybe two hundred people at a time, and there were outbreaks of scabies and tuberculosis. Since this young girl was pregnant, I tried to bring her to my house. My mom said no. I said, “Why? We have all this space in the house and this girl is pregnant and the center is no place for her to be in the midst of tuberculosis outbreaks with her pregnancy!” My mother still said no, so I moved out and lived with the homeless for a few years.
I decided to start a non-profit organization called Zerca y Lejos (Near and Far) with the idea that it doesn’t matter if you are near, here where you live, or you are far, in another place like Africa, you can always feel compassion for those that are around you and try to do your best for whoever you meet. I went to Cameroon and recognized that the real problem behind health and poverty was the lack of compassion in the world, the lack of understanding, the lack of love. If you think about it, any problem can be resolved if humanity wants to resolve it. I decided to go back to medical school so that I could influence the environment where I was working. Maybe I could also bring a different perspective to medicine. Back in school, I started to invite my colleagues to come to Cameroon as medical students, as medical doctors, as nurses, and work on this global health project, caring about people because they suffered, just because they suffered, not because we were cool.
Julie: What was your focus in medical school?
Maria: I completed my studies and one year of residency thinking I was going to be a surgeon. Then, in Africa, I discovered the true concept of public health – changing the world by giving people the tools to help and care for themselves, working with ministries of health so that they can change the way things happen in their countries.
It is important to change the political environment of inequity, solve the problems at the roots. In public health, you can touch what causes the injustice. Rather than taking care of one patient, you can change the rules for all patients. I knew I would miss being with individual patients, which made me sad, but public health was the better cause. I did it for them, not me. I finished my residency in epidemiology and public health, and then I completed a Masters in Public Health.
Julie: I hear your desire to connect with patients one-on-one. Public health settings often address populations. How do you stay connected to yourself and others?
Maria: I now work with ministries of health, with drug donation programs and pharmaceutical companies, with donors. I am working with the people who need to hear the public health message the most. When they understand, a domino effect of love happens. Compassionate global health can trigger a revolution of love. I care about you, and hopefully you care about others. Global health is a very powerful tool to achieve an internal revolution that can change humanity. That’s what keeps me going.
Julie: I love this idea of internal revolution. It’s the ripple effect… you talk to a minister of health, he or she understands, and those in the community benefit. That’s wonderful.
Maria: Absolutely. I believe that in every situation you have to follow your heart and do the best that you can. For the moment, the best I can do is to try and foster an internal revolution and promote a different way of being.
Julie: Growing up, where did you witness compassion? Were there particular people who influenced you?
Maria: Yes! When I was young, missionaries tending to homeless people in Spain or in other countries came to talk to us in school. They helped me see that my dreams were possible and encouraged me to follow them. This credibility was important, a turning point, since my family did not support my vision.
Julie: Why do you think compassion is not talked about in global health?
Maria: Compassion is very quiet in our society in general, so I don’t think it’s only in global health. It is a reflection of our society. When you switch on television you don’t hear much about compassion. Most films are about action and violence or very strong stimulus, but not compassion. Our lives are an opportunity to express compassion to everyone we work with and live with and interact with. This is not promoted. Rather, many people enter the cycle of life trying to achieve more money and better status.
What about loving each other and having a world where everyone can live with the same rights and the same opportunities in a global community where we all care about each other? Inside of every single human being is the desire to love and be loved and have access to the fundamental rights that everyone needs – access to health, education, and human dignity. Maybe some people worry that talking about compassion makes us less professional, as though there is a contradiction between being a highly skilled professional and being compassionate. Far from being a contradiction they actually complement each other wonderfully.
Julie: Can you give me a specific instance, either in Africa or elsewhere, of an example of compassion that you’ve seen in the field?
Maria: One time in Malawi, I was in a very remote village and we were distributing deworming pills for people. It was specifically for soil-transmitted helminths and schistosomiasis. I remember sitting on the floor with the village chief. I said, “You have the power to change the future of your community. Your community is suffering because people are defecating on the ground or in the water, which transmits the worms. With your own hands, you can make a hole and build a latrine, then educate your community to use latrines and promote hygiene. If you do this, you will never suffer again from these diseases.” I remember the chief responded that no one ever had explained to him that he had this power to improve the health of his people in this way. He now had a mission to protect his people, in addition to taking the deworming pills. I felt so much compassion and empathy between the two of us.
Julie: What sustains you in this work?
Maria: My faith sustains me 100%. It is a privilege to work in a meaningful job that offers me the opportunity to do something for others. I think I would become crazy if I didn’t have the opportunity to love, because for me there is really no other purpose in life. The best you can do with your life is to do something for others. I often wonder what is inside the hearts of those that promote war, that promote hate, that forget, that live a life of superficiality where consuming and accumulating are primary objectives. I cannot believe that these people are truly happy. I don’t believe that some people are good and some people are bad. I think we are made with the same genes and the same material, so I believe that we all have the same thirst for love inside.
At the same time, so many of the people we are working for, who are often ill and impoverished and suffering, try to help each other. Working for them makes me feel really humbled. I have so much privilege. I give back, not because I have so much, but because I deeply love these people and know they would do the same for me.
Julie: Do you have a message for young people entering the field?
Maria: Yes. First, listen and learn from people. It is not just the university who teaches you. It is not just books. If you believe we can create a more loving world where every human being has compassion for each other, where there is no hate, where there is no war, where there is no injustice, then you need to learn from many sources. For me, working since I was a child with homeless people, with people in Africa, even before I started university and definitely before I finished, really taught me a lot about what’s important in life and how to have a greater impact. Listen and learn and you will discover your contribution.
Second, always follow your heart and do not wait until you have the perfect answer because we are always doing imperfect things. We are trying. As humans we didn’t come here with a book of instructions, so we have to follow our heart and do what we think is best in every moment, even if it isn’t perfect. Inactivity is never going to change anything, because the world keeps moving, so if you don’t do anything you are almost undoing it. Never stop trying.
Third, keep searching inside of you for answers until the day you die. Every day is an opportunity for doing something better. You cannot settle when you finish your schooling or when you have a position. That is just the beginning, the entry for what you can do. The moment you stop asking is the moment you become a part of the system and you forget what brought you here.
Dr. Maria Rebollo is a physician and public health specialist with more than a decade of experience in NTDs, project management and international public health throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas. As founder of ZYL, Maria also oversees multiple projects focused on comprehensive rural development activities in Cameroon as that country works to achieve the global millennium development goals, including those targeting the NTDs.