Student Profiles: Dr. Arlene Nishimwe ’19

Headshot of Dr. Arlene Nishimwe
Dr. Arlene Nishimwe, a student in the MGHD Class of 2019, at the program’s first intensive week in Rwinkwavu, Rwanda. Photo by Amani Hatangimana for UGHE.

Dr. Arlene Nishimwe was just nine years old when her family moved to Rwanda. Born in Burundi, Arlene’s childhood was split between two countries, an upbringing in which she takes immense pride. Along the way, Arlene has witnessed inequities that have driven her to pursue a career in medicine and a Master of Science in Global Health Delivery (MGHD).

A self-described “sickly” child, Arlene often dealt with health problems like malaria, common flu, and allergies throughout her younger years in Burundi. While diseases like malaria take the lives of over 400,000 Africans each year according to the World Health Organization, Arlene was fortunate enough to access the necessary treatments for these relatively simple, but sometimes deadly, ailments. In the years since, she recognized that not everyone was so lucky in what, for many Burundians, remains a struggle to obtain life-saving health care that is almost exclusively available in the capital city of Bujumbura.

As she encountered these first experiences of global health inequity, Arlene entered secondary school and developed a passion for biological sciences and human anatomy. While she did not come from a family of medical professionals, her own experience benefiting from critical health interventions as a child proved to her the importance of quality health service delivery. Arlene knew that she could make a difference for others, especially those often left out, by becoming a medical doctor.

Today, as a general practitioner at Kibagabaga District Hospital, Arlene is constantly faced with the challenges of delivering high-quality health care to all who need it. A pivotal realization for Arlene has been that health care access and outcomes are often dictated by socioeconomic determinants, such as poverty, food security, and social support. A somewhat unheard of idea during her first four years in medical school, this piece of her education began during a community medicine module in her fifth year at the University of Rwanda-Huye. In those weeks, Arlene gained some of her first patient-facing experiences, translating the lessons learned in classrooms she described as emphasizing “pure medicine” to the realities of serving rural, poor patients.

“That’s the first time I saw that someone could be sick from something other than a disease. That being poor or not being able to go to school could be the cause of disease.”

While Arlene felt invigorated by her exposure to community medicine, it felt like a disjointed sliver in the grand scheme of medical school, comprising less than a month of her 6-year training. Later, as an intern doctor serving one of Kigali’s poorer hospital catchment areas, Arlene discovered how common community-related causes of disease were. As patients who lacked food or water to take readily available medicines suffered, Arlene felt a growing sense of helplessness as a health care provider. Determined to strengthen her ability to provide excellent patient care, as well as impact the larger health system in which she operated, Arlene applied to join the MGHD.

“I realized that everything UGHE was doing was about how health care delivery was supposed to be. [In the MGHD] I would increase my knowledge about global health equity, and leave with a degree to back it up.”

Now, as a proud member of the MGHD Class of 2019, Arlene sees clearly the link between the social issues and barriers to health that she has observed formally and informally over two decades, to the MGHD curriculum and its equity-driven approach. In the process, she’s become a more compassionate service provider, a fiercer advocate for global health equity, and a growing leader for the future of health care delivery in East Africa.