By Reshma Sirajee
For most people when you are sick, you go to the hospital. You wait for the doctor to do an exam, receive a diagnosis and leave. In this scenario, healthcare accessibility appears clear-cut and, under Canada’s universal health care policy, the cost is covered. Unfortunately, this is not the case for 5.2 million Canadians living with obesity.
This summer, I had the opportunity to work with Obesity Canada (formerly Canadian Obesity Network). Obesity Canada (OC) is the leading obesity charity association that connects healthcare professionals, researchers, students, policymakers and Canadians living with obesity. My experiences ranged from working in the OC office to meeting Edmonton’s Members of Legislative Assembly (MLA) to helping organize a student meeting at Western University in London, Ontario.
OC is an organization that helps amplify voices of individuals living with obesity and works with them to advocate for treatment. I personally found that empowering Canadians living with obesity was a meaningful and effective approach to strengthen our key messages: Obesity is a chronic disease not unlike diabetes or hypertension and deserves to be treated as such; individuals living with obesity are productive members of society that deserve respect and dignity.
I was interested to learn about healthcare from a political and scientific perspective. I had little understanding of the scientific world beyond the research lab; my experience with OC provided me with valuable insight, since the organization shares aspects of research, government involvement and patient advocacy.
My central project focused on patient advocacy. I connected Edmonton MLAs to OC representatives and patient advocates to inform our local politicians about current demographics and other details regarding obesity. One of our main goals is to have provinces and our health care system recognize obesity as a chronic disease, bringing policy in alignment with the scientific evidence. The World Health Organization, Canadian Medical Association and virtually every professional scientific obesity organization recognize obesity as a chronic disease not simply the lack of willpower and personal failure that is commonly portrayed in society. The statement of “eat less and move more” over-simplifies a very complex disease where your body resists weight loss and has many contributing factors such as genetics, environment, psychological and behavioural components.
I am grateful for having the opportunity to travel to Western University in London, Ontario, where I helped organize the Canadian Obesity Student Meeting (COSM). Although it was difficult for me to be in a different place with no connection to home, I allowed myself to open up about my concerns with my mentors nearby ready to support me and guide me through this experience.
The first few days prior to the student meeting began with full day board meetings, where I witnessed the different levels of leadership that work together to make OC function as a united front. It felt like I was sitting in my leadership class where everyone was coming from a different background but united together to make concrete goals for the upcoming year. This trip strengthened my love for research and problem-solving but also put in context for the humane aspect of research, that is, why research matters. There is a focus on evidence-based treatment, then translating this treatment finding into actions and engaging patients in all aspects of research and care.
From building a team to gracefully dealing with challenging situations, I noticed OC continuously goes back to their values when setting goals; times may change, circumstances can change, however, the values that form the foundation OC are simple: 1) Fight weight bias and discrimination, 2) educate health care professionals, policy makers and the public about the complexity of obesity and, 3) find better solutions to the prevention and ultimately treatment of obesity.
Currently, I am continuing my work with OC to create infographics and webinars. The purpose of these is to provide training for anyone who would like to advocate for their own care or get involved in OC’s larger scale advocacy.
Working with OC these past three months have shown me that I really do not know what my future holds. Rather than worrying about the uncertainties, I am excited to seek out new opportunities and to grow and change with each new experience. I have realized that there are so many things I would like to try and learn and explore. The conference attendees coming from so many different backgrounds with the common goal of treating obesity inspired me to reach out beyond my field of knowledge and comfort level and showed me that every background and voice can help in solving a problem as great and multidimensional as this.
Perhaps the best part of my experience was observing how the versatility of OC team as they switched roles between being a leader, a follower and a manager. I had the opportunity to do the same, even though it took me time to figure out when to take initiative and when to step back. One of my mentors exemplified for me what leadership is all about: being comfortable in your own skin.
I can proudly say, the greatest gift of my stretch experience was working under the mentorship of inspiring fierce female leaders: Dr. Ximena Ramos-Salas, Dawn Hatanaka and Dr. Mary Forhan, who exemplify authenticity, vulnerability and lead with passion. They taught me that leaders are flexible, and do not wait for others to take actions but rather start the movement. I know I will take this lesson with me in my future endeavours.