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Fit to Serve

Dr. Prerna Mona Khanna’s advice to aspiring disaster volunteers: Start young and stay in shape.

Swimming laps in a pool every morning has kept Prerna Mona Khanna fit enough for what she loves most: Emergency response. The physician has been rushing toward disasters since 1998. Her public health training in the Bloomberg School’s General Preventive Medicine Residency, completed in 1997, paved the way for her humanitarian work.

“Not only could I provide expertise in public health, but I could also treat patients,” says Khanna, a recipient of the Global Achievement Award 2015 from the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association. “I had a dual skill-set that was desperately needed in times of disasters.”

Most doctors are unable to leave their private practice or surgery schedule to respond to a catastrophe in the U.S., let alone abroad. But Khanna’s career as an independent medical contractor and medical journalist has allowed her more flexibility to head to a disaster site with little advance notice.

As eager as she is to serve, she has never worked alone in another country on emergency response. “I strongly recommend against self-deploying as an individual. You just don’t know enough about the country,” says Khanna.

To avoid life-threatening situations—not having a source of drinking water, for example—she has traveled to more than 12 countries with 3 different teams, including the federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team. They have called on her to respond to major natural disasters, like Hurricane Sandy and the Nepal earthquake, as well as the 9/11 terrorist attack. To date she has completed 14 disaster deployments, 9 international medical missions and 4 international disaster trainings and mock events.

Khanna recently wrapped up a three-month deployment with the World Health Organization (WHO) to Liberia, where she worked as Country Coordinator for Occupational Health and Safety. Her charge: to protect health workers fighting Ebola. Her efforts included recommending stricter NGO and government protocols in facilities and workplaces.

A veteran of crisis response, Khanna is accustomed to challenging working conditions. Punishing heat and humidity, the stench of sewage and the search for a decent toilet are all part of the job.

“I wish I could say there is a boot camp for would-be humanitarian workers, where you go to the bathroom in holes in the ground to see if you can tolerate the conditions before you go abroad,” Khanna says. “You just have to know yourself and what you’d be willing to take.”

Her advice “to the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed youngsters” eager to join the disaster relief community is simple: “Be as physically fit as possible.”

—Salma Warshanna-Sparklin

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