As a child, Sarah Kuech ’10 traveled the globe with her family, learning about other cultures and feeling comfortable in different ways of living. She arrived at St. Kate’s a worldly young woman, but like many 18-year-olds, wasn’t quite sure of what she wanted to do with her future. She majored in nursing based on her father’s suggestion. That decision changed her life.
Kuech’s passion for international issues, social justice and women’s rights deepened with each college course she took. She volunteered in the community a fair amount when she wasn’t in classes. Her interest in healthcare grew when she started clinicals at a local hospital her junior year. “This period of hands-on learning was formative and taught me a lot,” says Kuech, now a nursing supervisor with Associated Physicians LLP in her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. “It also made me realize that I had the skills to positively affect a person’s health and well being.”
Kuech took that know-how to the Peace Corps after earning her St. Kate’s degree. In March 2011, she became the first preventative health volunteer stationed at the village of Sare Coly Salle in Senegal, Africa. There, she worked closely with a local team of four — a nurse, who served as chief of the health post; a midwife; a pharmacist and a health volunteer. Since 1961, more than 140 St. Kate’s alumnae have volunteered with the Peace Corps.
Senegal, located in Western Africa, covers an area slightly smaller than South Dakota. Its Kolda region — where Kuech lived for 27 months with no running water and no electricity — accounts for the nation’s second highest number of malaria cases per capita. Children under the age of five and pregnant women are the most vulnerable, reports UNICEF, because they lack access to life-saving treatment within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms.
Contracting the disease is a crisis for the entire family, says Kuech. In her blog post for Stomping Out Malaria in Africa, a Peace Corps initiative, she explains: “The medicine for severe malaria will cost roughly 20,000 CFA, which is more than the cost of a sack of rice that could feed a family of five for one to two weeks. The family also loses money in labor.
Every day that person has malaria is a day that they can’t work in their family’s field, potentially negatively impacting their harvest, decreasing the amount of food that they’ll have for the following year. If the person with malaria is a woman, she can no longer help cook for her family…. If that woman is a mother, she can no longer properly care for her child.” To make matters worse, malaria doesn’t discriminate. “Many families have several people with malaria simultaneously,” adds Kuech, “which only magnifies the hardships that family must face.”
Sleeping under mosquito nets can help. Kuech’s village received free insecticide-treated nets in a nationwide distribution campaign three years prior to her arrival. Unfortunately, as she would discover in personal visits to the village’s 44 homes, these nets were far from perfect. If they weren’t brittle from being left out in the sun, they were pockmarked with small holes from being tucked under mattresses and dragged across bamboo bed frames.
Kuech hosted her first net repair event on Malaria Day 2012. Its success led to a series of other events — to show villagers how to routinely sew, wash and hang their nets — that she coorganizedwith other Peace Corps volunteers across the Kolda region. In total, 925 nets that roughly 2,436 people sleep under, including 861 children under the age of five, were repaired and washed.
“The training I received at [the Peace Corps] Malaria Boot Camp not only gave me the tools to do malaria work, it also gave me the drive to reach as many people as I possibly could without compromising the quality of the event,” she writes in her blog. “The community I was placed in had highly motivated and enthusiastic health workers who helped me design and carry out the first event, which acted as the pilot for the subsequent 23 net repair events.”
Nine years ago, Kuech came to St. Kate’s unsure of her future. Today, she has a clear vision. “I see myself working for an international health organization,” she declares.