The making of an mHealth maven
The mHealth Alliance is celebrating its fifth year of coordinating mHealth projects around the world. Patricia Mechael, the Alliance's executive director, discusses her life and career, and explains why she's driven to expand mHealth adoption in low- and middle-income countries.
More than two decades before she joined the Alliance, when mobile phones had only recently begun to spread -- and then to only the upper economic tiers of society -- Mechael demonstrated the same knack for seeking out common interests that she's applied so effectively to growing mHealth around the world.
Back in the ‘80s, while in high school, Mechael found the Cold War perplexing, disturbed by how the United States and the USSR could justify hating one another, could alienate each other so fervently, yet so arbitrarily. A high school science teacher, aware of Mechael’s confusion over the divisive political climate, encouraged her to apply to a National Science Foundation program to study math and physics in the USSR. Mechael applied and got a full scholarship to spend the summer in Russia.
“It was such an eye opening experience to go and experience an entirely different world, culture, people, and yet the things that make us human were common across. [The Russian students and I] all had the same aspirations. We all had a lot of hope about our futures. They were now trying to figure out what they were going to do when they grew up”
Mechael recognized the false simplicity of the opposition between the American and Russian people. This realization of and focus on commonality amidst diverse cultural backgrounds has persisted through Mechael’s career and, recently, she has felt it even more poignantly.
Gaining maternal insight
“I’ve worked on maternal and child health for over 15 years and I now have an 18-month old little boy at home, and personally going through the pregnancy, the delivery process, and just being a mom is such an incredible learning experience and insight into -- and back to Russia -- that these are common experiences that people have everyday throughout the world, and it’s been great to be able to share in that common, shared experience as a mom. Gabriel has helped me in many ways reprioritize and put things into perspective in a very different way than I had been. He’s teaching me how to slow down, he’s teaching me how to appreciate what’s important in life, but also what’s important to other people in life.”
Women’s health and rights first began to shape Mechael’s career when, after graduating from Johns Hopkins University and pursuing a career in international health, she worked on a national perinatal and neonatal study in Egypt. Mechael visited rural villages to spend time with pregnant women, talking with them during their days about their health problems and those of their children.
“It really showed me a whole other aspect of life and the world, meeting people who were living on less than two dollars a day and spending time trying to understand how they viewed the world, what issues were most important to them, how they negotiated different aspects of their lives”
She saw women struggling to conceive and the tension this created within their families, women who did not want to be pregnant and were desperately, dangerously trying to lose their pregnancies, and women having to work through gatekeepers, that is, family members restricting the care for which women could visit hospitals to receive during their pregnancies.
Sharing in the experience of motherhood, Mechael says she feels attuned to the women with whose lives she has intersected over the course of her career, understanding the fears and hopes associated with raising a child. The health and happiness that Mechael wants for Gabriel is, she feels, what every woman wants for their children. It’s these common hopes that drive her, “the things that make me want to get up, do my job, get the technology out in a meaningful way so that women are healthier, their children are healthier, they live longer, they go to school, they have productive lives.”
[See also: mHealth Alliance South Africa bound.]