"Reach Out and Engage":
Volunteering with the Thalassemia Outreach Team
by Wendi Gu
by Wendi Gu
I still remember pulling my brand-new and incredibly oversized blue volunteer shirt for thalassemia outreach from the washer and dryer almost a year ago. It smelled like my favorite lavender detergent and was still warm from the drying cycle it had just been put through. It was the day of my first outreach event as a rookie thalassemia outreach team member, and on that summer day, I couldn't wait to drive through the Caldecott Tunnel from my small town of Lafayette to Oakland's Chinatown.
As I drove down to the annual Lion’s Club Health Fair, organized for the Asian populations living in and around the city of Oakland, I recalled the moment, a month ago, when I received a call from Laurice Levine, coordinator of thalassemia outreach at Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland (CHRCO), welcoming me to the outreach team she had created recently to increase awareness of the genetic blood disorder in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was the end of my third year at UC Berkeley, summer was approaching fast, and I had been searching for a cause that I could become passionate about and dedicate myself to. Imagine my surprise and happiness when I heard the news that I would be joining five other Berkeley students and alumni on the team to inform the community about the existence of thalassemia, encourage people to get tested for the gene, and promote blood donations for patients who require chronic transfusions.
At the health fair, I joined my fellow team members, Sushrita Neogi and Jeff Nathan, ready for an entire afternoon of outreach. Being of Chinese descent, I naturally wanted to raise awareness in the Chinese populations, and I thought my knowledge of Mandarin would definitely come in handy when communicating with those in the Chinese community. However, I found it very difficult to explain all the medical symptoms and terms in Mandarin and was frustrated when I wasn't able to talk with the passersby who only understood or spoke Cantonese. Despite these little challenges, the conversations and interactions I had throughout the afternoon made all the frustrations disappear instantly. They opened my eyes to how many people were unaware of this condition—but they were willing to learn about it and pass on the information to their loved ones, inspiring and motivating me to dedicate even more of effort to this cause and spread the word to as many communities as I can.
Since that first day, I have been doing outreach at other health fairs, cultural festivals, and blood drives, as well as on the UC Berkeley campus. Our team has even kickstarted a DeCal this spring—a student-run and student-taught class at Cal—titled Thal at Cal: Invisible No More, with the aim of inspiring passion for thalassemia outreach in our fellow students. I cannot put into words how much of an impact doing outreach for thalassemia and the Northern California Comprehensive Thalassemia Center has made on my life, and I am so grateful to be able to share this experience with six other equally caring and driven individuals. I am looking forward to setting and achieving new goals this year on spreading awareness and education about thalassemia. Go Team Thal!
Wendi Gu is currently finishing up her last year at UC Berkeley, pursuing a degree in molecular cell biology, with an emphasis on neurobiology, as well as a minor in Italian studies. She will be applying to medical school with the hope of one day becoming a pediatrician. She loves doing outreach and spreading the word about thalassemia with her team members at CHRCO and also loves volunteering with the Suitcase Clinic, an organization on the UC Berkeley campus dedicated to offering free health and social services to underserved and homeless populations in the Bay Area. In addition, Wendi is conducting research in a vision science lab that studies cataract formation in the eye and potential treatment options for this leading cause of blindness. When she is not knee-deep in schoolwork or extracurricular activities, she enjoys practicing yoga, rooting for the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder, learning new languages, being a foodie, spending time with friends, and traveling.