Susan Miranowski: Making the most of what life pitches her way

March 22, 2006

The whole thing could have been a complete waste of time. But Middlebury College junior Susan Miranowski made sure it wasn't.

Having landed in the heart of South Africa in the summer of 2005 - far from her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota - Susan discovered that the internship opportunity she had come for wasn't exactly what she expected. She had hoped to be working and learning alongside doctors and nurses in local medical clinics, but instead found herself employed as a part-time candy striper at the Red Cross Children's Hospital in Cape Town. "It wasn't the most challenging work, and I was a little disappointed," says Susan. "But I wanted to make the most of my trip, no matter what." So she did.

Luckily for Susan, her host family welcomed her diligent and determined spirit. The family lived in Mitchells Plain, a township just outside Cape Town, and her host-father, John Pascoe, was a Baptist pastor and a very well connected man. It wasn't long before he found work for Susan in two local medical facilities, both in Mitchells Plain.

The emergency room at Tafelsig

"The first place I worked was a small but very busy everyday clinic that provided care for people with short term needs - child health care, immunizations, psychological health, family planning, HIV counseling and testing, and the distribution of antibiotics and medicines to the local people," says Susan. "I was able to shadow nurses, doctors and psychologists and I really got a feel for how the South African approach to health care differs from what I've grown up with in the United States." Susan recalls that the small and rudimentary clinic was constantly busy because of the first-come first-serve practice, and often sterilization was not a high priority: "I walked around with my own hand sanitizing lotion in my pocket," she says. But overall she gained enormous respect for the dedicated medical staff and their efforts. "South Africa's health care system has some benefits and some needs, but everyone can be treated there and they are making it work," she says.

The second clinic was a larger and slightly better equipped day hospital providing AIDS treatments and various surgical procedures, also to the people of Mitchells Plain. "In this clinic," says Susan, "I was exposed to more of the typical tragedies people think of when they think of Africa. I saw people dying of AIDS, people with gunshot and knife wounds, and abortion and female sterilization procedures." Though the rooms were makeshift and often overcrowded, the procedures were more structured and systemized than at the previous clinic, according to Susan. One thing she notes in particular is the remarkably high compliance rate among patients. "It becomes ingrained in the patients," she says, "especially those with AIDS. It's as if they say to themselves 'I must do this, or else ...' and that drives them to stick with treatments, remain on antibiotics, and follow the doctors' orders."

When she had time off, Susan and friends would visit Cape Town for a break and some fun. "People say all the time that South Africa is both a third and first world country, and seeing life in the townships as compared to the city gave me the insight to understand why." She describes the stunning natural beauty of Cape Town's surrounding mountains and breathtaking waterfront, as well as its big-city lights and excitement. "Cape Town is like New York City for all its accessibility and internationalism," she says. And while the city is only about 20 kilometers from townships like Mitchells Plain, it may as well be on another planet for the stark differences Susan saw between the tiny and overcrowded shanties and manicured city life.

When she thinks back on why she was so determined to pursue an internship in South Africa, Susan says, "I wanted an internship that would truly allow me to grow and learn, and not just provide a fun break from school. And my interests were mainly in the health situation in South Africa, so this was a natural choice for me."

Setting such high goals for herself seems to be less about the achievement than the experience for Susan. As a veteran catcher on the Middlebury College softball team, Susan joins her teammates in a fundamental love of the game. "I've played since I was 10 years old," she says. "I love being part of a team, having that connection with other people. And it's a great outlet from the rest of my life. It's gives me balance as a person and student." Susan recalls a goal-setting meeting she and her teammates had at the start of the season, organized and run by the captains. "We sat together in the room and talked about our team goals and our personal goals - everything from winning the NESCAC championship to just having fun out there."

The village of Tafelsig, South Africa.
A township bordering Mitchells Plain, South Africa.

According to coach Angie Totaro, "Susan is a very focused and driven student athlete. She has enormous knowledge of the game, and her desire to learn more is never ending. She is a catcher and also plays second base, but as a catcher it is her responsibility to be a leader on the field, a job she does just that."

In the classroom, Susan is also noted for her spirited diligence and leadership. She's a neuroscience major and has collaborated on research projects in psychology and premedical sciences. "She is an incredible student, that much is obvious," says adviser Matt Kimble, an assistant professor of psychology who specializes in clinical psychology and research design. "I first met Susan in my psychological disorders course, and later she worked with me others in designing a research project to examine the relationship between alcohol and unwanted sexual encounters for undergraduate women. Susan helped to develop a survey and also to collect data. She was a great addition to the team.

For Susan, the combination of her neuroscience and psychology studies is the ideal integration of a highly meticulous science and the study of human behavior. "My time in South Africa is the perfect example of how I combined my science and medical interests with my desire to connect with and help patients."

Susan hopes to pursue additional opportunities for exploring health care in other third world countries. She also plans to someday head back to Africa. "I'd like to get a medical degree with a master's in public health, and get involved on an international level."

- Blair Kloman