The Bigger Picture is More Important than a Self-Portrait
Kala Rachal, MPH | Research Coordinator
From humble beginnings in a town called Lutcher - which is known as being a part of the cancer alley stretch - I had a first-hand account of rural health disparities caused by location and the lack of resources. I knew since I was a child the medical field was my calling, but I decided early on that a career in treatment would be the path of least resistance. I left home to join the army because I was not ready to go to college to pursue nursing. My career in the army was a journey that not only changed my outlook on life but motivated and led me to my life’s purpose. My deployments to South Korea (2010-2012) and Afghanistan (2012-2013) ignited an internal flame and largely contributed to my career shift from treatment to preventative healthcare.
In South Korea, I worked in healthcare management as a patient administration specialist in an outpatient clinic. During my spare time I would cross train with medics driving the ambulance, practicing IV insertions, and learning how to assign degrees of urgency to patients during emergencies. My exposure to health issues abroad began while working with a public health nurse during my two years in South Korea. The nurse started a smoking cessation class for soldiers and their families on the military base and I assisted with data collection. It was interesting to see a nurse promote healthy behaviors and assess patients using alternative methods of care without promoting the use of western medicine. Community engagement became an outlet for me as I started teaching English in homeless shelters and elementary schools. I started to notice the shift in my career focus while volunteering with local organizations and processing my own personal encounters.
My interest in public health led to my decision to deploy to Afghanistan to expand my knowledge in disaster management. In Afghanistan I worked with Europeans from Lithuania, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, and Albania. I was one of only two females that worked in a tactical operation center (TOC). The cultural experience of working with so many higher-ranking officials from different backgrounds gave me an opportunity to grow personally and professionally. I was fortunate to be a part of strategic planning meetings that allowed everyone to express their different ideas and viewpoints while working together to find solutions to mission related problems. I was able to learn more about cultural nuances, government structures, and socioeconomic challenges from an individual perspective rather than the media. From my personal conversations with my Italian and Spanish comrades I saw similar perspectives about the government, the support of gender equality, and the armed forces. My comrades saw me as a free spirit and enjoyed having discussions about race, combat experiences, and life lessons with me. My experiences taught me how important it is to build a personal tribe and keep an open mind. My deployment also broadened my understanding of tactical operations and taught me about establishing connections with locals during war and adverse conditions.
The overall mission was more than an assignment given to a subordinate trained to be a soldier, it was an alignment of my passion and my overall purpose. Luckily throughout my career I have been put in positions that have challenged me to make and execute key decisions effectively. The first lesson I learned during my deployments was how important it was to be decisive. As a young woman It was important for me to be assertive and direct regardless of the rank structure. Women are not always given the platform to make decisions or treated with equal respect in a male-dominated career sector. As a public health professional, I have adopted the saying, "Think globally, act locally" and used it to be an active agent of change. My second lesson was learning to focus on the target population and controlling my ego. When I am at home and during my travels I explore local cultures and take time to talk with the elders of the communities to gain more knowledge about the historical differences. Nothing can be done without the support of others and I have learned during my travels that the world connects like a puzzle and the bigger picture is more important than a self-portrait. The overall goal of any mission is to make an impact. As a professional I have not always agreed with decisions made by my leadership, but the silver lining of all my encounters is that I have grown as a person and a professional. The third and most important lesson that I have learned is that emotions will either help you reevaluate your purpose or strengthen you at your core. No matter how far I travel or who I may encounter, the one thing that remains the same is my passion for promoting healthy behaviors and working to limit health disparities.
The interesting thing about life is that everything connects. My past experiences prepared me for my current role as a health educator. When I stopped trying to order my steps I began to realize that my journey was already planned, and I needed to let go of the idea that I would dictate the timing and the location. I realized that I am a vessel challenged with leaving a legacy and impacting the youth in a positive way in my professional work and personal life. I had to understand that my purpose begins at home and my work within my own community was not complete.