Double vision

UGA student wants to heal patients and the health care system

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Double vision

UGA student and Foundation Fellow Smitha Ganeshan, a senior majoring in anthropology and biology, poses in the Foundation Fellows library in Moore College.

Photo by: Andrew Davis Tucker

When she travels, Smitha Ganeshan has two traditions. One is to go running. The UGA senior and Foundation Fellow says it’s a great way to see people and places. So she’s run in the meadows surrounding Oxford, England, and in Chennai, India, where crowded conditions made it more difficult than usual.

Her other tradition involves joining Jacqueline Van De Velde to find the highest point of any city or landscape. Ganeshan and Van De Velde, also a senior and Foundation Fellow, have climbed to the top of Table Mountain in South Africa and dangled their legs off Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland.

These two traditions offer Ganeshan a way to experience a community up close but also get a larger perspective. It’s not unlike her academic interests. She plans to attend medical school and become a doctor, but she also wants to study public health and policy issues. She’s drawn to the one-on-one satisfaction of working with patients, but she wants to have an impact on the system as a whole too.

“Medicine—I just think it’s the most incredible endeavor in the world,” she says. “It’s medicine, but then it’s sociology, anthropology, it’s geography, just everything all at once.”

Ganeshan was born in Atlanta to Ram and Latha Ganeshan, who emigrated from India. By the time she began elementary school they’d settled in Johns Creek, where they created their own software company. From an early age she was interested in science, but it wasn’t until later that two experiences guided her to medicine.

In high school, Ganeshan’s assigned summer reading included Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. The biography covers Farmer’s efforts to cure infectious diseases and bring medical relief to underserved places like Haiti. It sparked her interest in global health and is still one of her favorite books.

Ganeshan holds a thermometer while checking Charles Linder’s temperature at the Athens Nurses Clinic. She’s volunteered at ANC, one of two free medical clinics in Athens-Clarke County, since her sophomore year. Photo by Peter Frey.

The second experience, also during high school, was working at Grady Memorial Hospital, where she shadowed Dr. Grace Rozycki, then associate chief of surgery. At Grady, Ganeshan found a way to bring together her love of science, volunteering and working with people.

“‘This makes sense. This feels right,’” she remembers thinking, “in a way that nothing else really had.”

And her work at Grady—where she witnessed how the health care system treats low-income, uninsured and Medicaid patients—had a strong influence on her attitude toward public health.

“For lack of a better word, I think it’s unacceptable that we still have populations here in the United States that are not able to access even basic primary care services,” she says.

It’s a crisp, sunny September morning when Ganeshan welcomes a patient to the Athens Nurses Clinic, one of two free medical clinics in Athens-Clarke County.

“I don’t know if we’ve met before,” she says. “I’m Smitha.”

Since her sophomore year Ganeshan has volunteered at ANC, where she helps patients sign in, records their vital signs and takes their family, medical and social histories. The patients at ANC are similar to those she worked with at Grady, and Ganeshan values the interaction with people from diverse backgrounds.

“I think the patients here remind me not to take myself too seriously,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter how different your life experiences have been, we’re all just people.”

And Ganeshan has incorporated her off-campus experiences into her academic life. During her sophomore Roosevelt Scholars seminar, a three-hour research course, she explored ways to improve primary care services in Athens-Clarke County. Over time the project evolved into an application for a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) designation. It was a slow process, and Ganeshan spent a year garnering community support, collecting data and completing the application. If approved, it could provide additional funding opportunities for local primary care services.

Monica Gaughan, former UGA faculty in health policy and management, served as Ganeshan’s mentor on the HPSA project. Now an associate professor at Arizona State University, Gaughan says Ganeshan’s discipline made it feasible for her to commit to a long-term endeavor.

“I think Smitha’s passion for serving the poor is what motivated her. I think what kept her going was a sincere and mature desire to see something actually change,” she says. “For Smitha, it is not enough to understand a problem: She also wants to contribute to its solution.”

With her Foundation Fellows class, Ganeshan has traveled to England, Costa Rica and South Africa as well as New York and Washington, D.C. She values the lessons learned on the road.

“It challenges you in a way that no other experience [does],” she says.

She’s also arranged her own trips, setting up internships to explore her interests. In Chennai, India, she interned with the epidemiology team at the World Health Organization’s Hospital and Research Center for Diabetes. In Managua, Nicaragua, she assisted a physician at a community health clinic. She traveled twice to Peru: In Lima, she worked at a mobile health clinic, and in Iquitos, she worked on dengue fever prevention at a regional hospital.

In the summer of 2012 Ganeshan explored her interests in the U.S., interning at the Greater New York Hospital Association through the Honors in New York program.

“There I got a more nuanced understanding of the health care system in a way that I wasn’t able to do through my classes or reading,” she says. “There’s something about first-hand experience that will do that.”

Under Susan Waltman (AB ’73, MSW ’75), Ganeshan worked on translating obesity prevention models into programs for hospital implementation. Waltman, GNYHA executive vice president and general counsel, and a UGA Foundation trustee, describes Ganeshan as an exceptionally engaging person with a set of values and skills that will make her a leader in her chosen field.

“She seems so captured by the ability to touch so many lives,” Waltman says.

Over time Ganeshan has narrowed her focus to the U.S. health care system. She’s been meeting with Phaedra Corso, UGA professor of health policy and management, to discuss U.S. health care policy and reform. Corso says Ganeshan is not just skimming the surface.

“I have graduate students who are not nearly as deep a thinker as she is,” Corso says.

“What’s amazing about her is that she has an interest in medicine, which is focused on treating the individual, but beyond that she has an interest in public health, and that’s a rare thing to find in doctors.”

Last summer Ganeshan gave up a trip to Japan and an internship in public health research. Her grandfather, Sundaram, was turning 80—an important milestone in South Indian tradition—and he wanted her to be there.

Family is important to Ganeshan, who watches Indian soap operas with her grandmother, Jayalakshmi; texts often with sister Shreya, 17; and enjoys finding gifts for brother Shashank, 12.

“All of the work that I’m doing here and in my undergraduate career, and hopefully beyond, is great,” she says. “But at the end of the day, my family is of the utmost importance to me.”

Van De Velde says Ganeshan is just as committed to her friends.

“The last time I saw her she was jumping up and down because one of her good friends had just gotten an interview at [Medical College of Georgia], and she was taking her out,” she says.

In September Ganeshan had her own interview at MCG, and in October she interviewed at Harvard Medical School. She graduates in May and has applied to medical schools all over the country.

“I’m excited to see where I end up,” she says.

She’s referring to medical school, but it seems clear that there are people in Athens and beyond who also are excited about Ganeshan’s future.

“In our country if you look at the physicians who have a strong love and interest in public health, they have become our national health leaders,” Corso says. “She has demonstrated, at such a young age, her leadership ability, and she is on that path.”