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The Public Health Narrative

By Brian W. Simpson

On November 5, 2013, I welcomed a young doctoral student into my office. Students occasionally find their way to me to talk about a project or their desire to write about public health issues. All are smart, driven and committed to public health.

Tsega Gebreyesus is all of the above—and persistent as well. She had written me months previously asking to meet. The delay was my fault. She politely sent along requests until we finally met. That November afternoon, she told me about African asylum seekers and the human trafficking chain of misery and death that entrap so many in the Sinai. She told me about the survivors and their stories of unimaginable cruelty and unimaginable resilience. She said she had to tell the world about these horrors.

Tsega is soft-spoken, and she is fierce. I told her magazine writing is different from scholarly writing. She said she understood. I told her the article would likely go through a lot of edits and rewriting. She said, no problem. Convinced of the story’s importance and her dedication, I told her I was committed to publishing the story. She said thanks and asked when could she get started.

Twenty drafts later, the result of that conversation is Tsega’s cover story in this issue, “Bodies in the Desert.” 

Tsega’s unwavering commitment to a public health narrative reminded me strongly of another student, Varsha Ramakrishnan. She also had a story to tell. As the inaugural Johns Hopkins-Pulitzer Center Global Health Reporting Fellow last year, Varsha penned a remarkable piece about dowry violence in our Fall 2013 magazine. She exposed the plight of young brides in India who are beaten, immolated or even killed when their dowry gifts do not satisfy their husbands and in-laws. After training with journalists at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Varsha went to India to document this issue firsthand.

We learned recently that her story, “A Broken Promise,” won the 2014 Robert F. Kennedy College Journalism Award. Days later, the Society of Professional Journalists bestowed on her its 2013 Mark of Excellence national award for student journalism.

Tsega and Varsha demonstrate the importance of storytelling to the public health enterprise. They both witnessed an injustice, an affront to human rights—to health and dignity—and they both responded. The tools they chose were not vaccines or mosquito nets but words. Words carefully crafted into a story that can move readers and make a difference.