Today my first assignment for the Watson is due! Every 3 months, we have to submit a budget summary and a “long letter home” reflecting on our experience so far. If you’re interested, this is what I wrote:
Wow, a quarter into the Watson. It has certainly been an adventure, and things are going well so far. In many ways, the past few months have felt surprisingly natural. I’ve been away from home for 3 months now, which isn’t the longest I’ve ever been away, and I’ve grown to love the Watson lifestyle. Of course, it didn’t start off so smoothly; I freaked out on my third day in Sweden, unsure how I could possibly fill 365 days without frequent deadlines, co-workers, a boss, an office, or instructions. But once my project got underway, things became much easier, and I’ve been able to find my own rhythm in the lack of structure.
I’m currently in Qatar, my second project country, and I’ve been here just over a week now. I’ve already had a few project-related meetings, which is great, and I’m staying with a lovely Lebanese family that has connected me to some of their contacts here. I had a harder time starting off in Sweden, where I often stayed by myself and sent many cold emails to companies and hospitals, getting responses from maybe half of them. In Sweden, I lived in Gothenburg, Malmö, and Stockholm, and I also visited Lund (for the project) and Uppsala (to visit a new friend).
I’ve had roughly two meetings a week for the project, which has been a good pace because each meeting requires a lot of work before and after. I was able to meet with lots of different companies in Sweden, large and small, and talk to some doctors and researchers as well. I learned about health and technology and, especially at the beginning, I learned how to approach my project. When I started, I had no idea how to get the answers to my questions. My main questions are still “What factors influence the success and adoption of medical devices?” and “What are the cultural attitudes towards medical technology here?”, but I can’t simply ask people these questions. They are huge and vague, and no one knows how to answer them. Also, the more direct “Are there positive attitudes towards medtech here?” is far too leading of a question.
I learned to ask better questions once I realized that it’s my responsibility, not that of my interviewees, to infer the cultural attitudes towards health, technology, and health technology from what I hear and observe. For example, in Sweden, I started asking everyone “Why do you think Sweden is one of the healthiest countries in the world?” This big-picture question worked better, as I could note how often my interviewees brought up technology on their own. In Qatar, my question might change to “What do you think is essential to fixing the diabetes epidemic?” and seeing if medical technology comes up. Asking these specific health questions, or specific tech questions, is like going on a scavenger hunt to gather scattered puzzle pieces. I have to gather these pieces, talking to many people and observing different aspects of my location, before I can form the bigger picture and identify trends and patterns.
To sum up my findings in Sweden, the country is definitely one of the healthiest in the world by many metrics – one researcher there said that Sweden’s biggest health issue is “aging.” The main factors contributing to that health, according to the many people I interviewed, are the nearly-free public healthcare access; a long history of eating well; a highly educated population; and a commitment and societal pressure to be fit and active. There is also a huge openness to technology, which may play a part; people use their smartphones for everything including payment (you’ll never see a “cash only” sign in Sweden). People seem eager to try new medical devices as well. However, eHealth companies have to deal with extensive regulations, and it’s difficult to measure the effect of medical devices on the outcome of patients. Still, start-ups and companies are doing clinical studies to try to determine that effect, and innovation is everywhere. I also noticed a Nordic trend of ergonomic (human-centered) design that surely contributes to the success of medical devices there.
In terms of personal developments, I have had a lot of time to think about myself and my approach to the year, and I’ve already noticed some changes. I’ve definitely gotten bolder, both with strangers and by myself. I’ve become more outgoing and less self-conscious; the time pressure of the Watson helps me make more of an effort to get closer to people more quickly, and I’m really happy about that. I decided to find a swing-dancing group in Gothenburg for a non-project activity, since I used to do swing in college and it’s a great way to meet people. I found a group and went to their social dance, even though I would never go to such a thing by myself back home. Despite my nervousness, once I was there I had a great time and made some friends. I told them about my project and even made some project connections! At the same time, I’ve started to cherish my alone time, and I feel more confident than ever about doing my own thing and going places by myself. I used to hate being alone, but now I see it as a chance to get away from the ever-changing nature of the Watson. It’s a year of inconsistency where the only consistency is myself.
In all my careful thoughts, however, I never expected that I would learn the nature of grief – at least not so early into the Watson. While I was in the sunny southern town of Malmö, Sweden, I lost two of my grandparents over the course of 9 days. Before August, I had never known anyone who’s died. Can you believe that? I was born with 3 living grandparents, and I left for the Watson, 22 years later, with 3 living grandparents. Now I have one. It’s been months now, and I finally feel comfortable talking about it. I didn’t contact the Watson office about it because I knew my grandparents wouldn’t have wanted me to come home, and my grandmother passed so quickly after her husband that I wasn’t prepared to make any arrangements. I don’t think I would have been allowed to come home anyway.
I can’t be mad at the Watson for this. While I wish I could have supported my family members at the funerals I missed, it was easier to process the loss from afar. I know it’s selfish of me to appreciate that, but being on the Watson has given me the cushion of distance. However, it also forced the reality of the Watson at me. In my first few weeks of this year, I felt like I was traveling in a vacuum while everything back home stayed the same. I could be gone for ten days or ten years, and I would still return to everything being exactly the same, as though I had only left for a short vacation. But that fantasy was shattered by loss back home, and the truth is that real life goes on – or doesn’t, as it were – all over the world, all the time. I won’t come home to the place I left, and I have to be okay with that. Right now I can still pretend that it will be the same, which is probably why I’ve handled the loss well so far, but in 9 months I’ll have to face the reality of it.
There seems to be balance in the world, though, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the love and kindness I’ve received from so many strangers. The best part of my project, and the Watson as a whole so far, has been the way it introduces me to people I wouldn’t have met otherwise and brings me to places I wouldn’t have found on my own. One project interviewee (the CEO of his company!) offered to lend me a bike while I was in Gothenburg. One family struck up a conversation with me when I was alone in a café and invited me to visit them at their home in Uppsala. I barely knew them, but I decided to go for it. They kindly adopted me for the day, showing me around their town and cooking me a traditional Swedish dinner. The family I’m staying with here in Doha has been extraordinarily welcoming. I don’t know how I’ll return the favor to all these people who have opened their doors to me. I started keeping a list of all their names because I feel like I have to remember every kindness from every person. It’s like I need to create a special place in my heart to hold all these people so that, one day, I can pay it back (or forward).
It’s impossible to sum up a few months in a few pages, but I’m happy with where I’ve been so far and eager to see what awaits in this next quarter.