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Dalhousie med student wins prestigious scholarship

At 16 years old, most Canadian teenagers are navigating the ins and outs of high school, but Yaeesh Sardiwalla was also learning the structures of the Canadian healthcare system.

Having immigrated to Sydney, Cape Breton from South Africa, his family decided to escape the violence of the post-Apartheid country and the dangers of practicing medicine at home by moving with their son to Canada.

Sardiwalla’s older brother is a physician, who works in South Africa and has experienced being exposed to HIV infected needles and tuberculosis.

When Sardiwalla expressed interest in medicine himself, his parents decided that if it was even a remote possibility for him, they needed a safer option for his work.

“My Dad worked in the United Kingdom and Manitoba, but when he came to Nova Scotia for work he fell in love with the province, and also what Cape Breton had to offer. Sydney was not very exciting to me as a young person, but for him it was somewhere where he wanted to retire and felt safe.”

When Sardiwalla finally made it to his new home, his ideas of what living in Canada would be like were not entirely accurate.

“The concept of moving from a developing country to a first world country as a teenager, you have the naivety that you are moving to a perfect society… I believed as a young man that we would be protected by the new society, and for the most part that was true. But when I went to Membertou (a First Nation in Cape Breton), I found that things were not the same in the community as they were in Sydney.”

Having witnessed the conditions of First Nations on reserves in Nova Scotia, Sardiwalla decided to start volunteering at on-reserve clinics.

“Most of my experience was in larger hospitals, like Chris Hani Baragwanath in South Africa or Sydney’s hospital. I was kind of taken a back a bit to see that almost every patient was a smoker, or had mental health issues.”

Sardiwalla believes that it was due to many social factors that First Nations communities are battling these illnesses, and due to primary care that does not address health education or health literacy. This caused Sardiwalla to see many parallels between the healthcare First Nations were receiving and the care that South Africans were receiving.

“There were being given care, but it was not more comprehensive than just primary care. In the same way, people in South Africa were receiving quality primary care, but nothing more. They were provided with an operation to fix a health problem that they had, but there was no change to their lifestyle.”

The parallels in treatment only encouraged Sardiwalla to want to be more involved in his community. He began volunteering on more community projects, and credits his high school vice-principal, Harold Kite, for giving him many of the opportunities he had.

“Mr. Kite was definitely someone who wanted the best for his students. I cannot iterate the influence he has had on me,” says Sardiwalla, speaking on how Kite was the one who encouraged him to sit on the council of the Viola Desmond Chair for Social Justice. There he had the opportunity to engage with others on sharing stories of inequalities they had witnessed, or were burdened with.

Kite also was the one who supported Sardiwalla’s participation in the inaugural year of the Cape Breton Municipality Youth Council. The council consisted of two representatives from every high school in the region, and focused on discussions of income inequality and how socioeconomic differences affect youth.

One of the larger aspects of this council was that youth were able to participate in policy-making for the municipality in order to actively make life better for their peers.

Sardiwalla’s history of volunteering and community activism is part of what lured him to medicine. But the biggest reason? He wants to change people’s lives. “I want to bring hope where there is none” says Sardiwalla.

But he hasn’t always been so optimistic about medicine and it’s effect on making the world a better place.

“There were times when it was bad, and I was demoralized because you think ‘is there any value to medicine in these communities when you can’t even make a dent in the problem.’”

It was at a young age that Sardiwalla had a moment of clarity on whether or not medicine was really a path he wanted to take, and it was all due to the smiles on patients’ faces.

“I was 16 and volunteering at clinics, and I would just listen to people’s stories. I would spend time getting to know them. They would be having the worst day of their life, and listening to them was just making them feel happy.”

That happiness is the same kind that he sees his brother give to his own patients in South Africa. “It’s hard to describe that feeling of happiness, the gratitude towards a physician from their patient. It’s a special relationship.”

In 2019, Sardiwalla will graduate Dalhousie University with a degree in medicine.

Before that, he’ll get his fill of hands-on work when he participates in a volunteer trip with Me to We, where him and six other recipients of the RBC Leading Change Scholarship will travel to Kenya.

When Sardiwalla applies for the scholarship, one of the questions was: if you were addressing a room of your peers, what would you say you wanted to change in your lifetime, and, why is what you do important to you.

For Sardiwalla, he hopes to change First Nations access to healthcare in Nova Scotia in his lifetime, and for the importance of his work, it all comes down to who he is and where he’s from.

“If I have it my way, I’ll do my training and then I’ll stay and work in Nova Scotia… I think opening up a practice in the middle of nowhere would be something I would really like to do.”

Through all of the success and experiences he’s had, he has put a high value on the youthful optimism he had about medicine when he was 16.

“The one thing I would say is, never forget why you do what you do. I’ve seen many people forget that and I never want to emulate that. When you first have the dream, the naivety of why you go into a field, you should never lose that.”

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