In the space of ten years, Nandita Venkatesan (MPP 2020) went from battling two life-threatening rounds of tuberculosis (TB) to becoming a committed patient rights advocate, addressing prominent national and international forums including the United Nations General Assembly.
Nandita was first diagnosed with TB in 2007, shortly after beginning her undergraduate degree in her home city of Mumbai. A prolonged battle with the disease took its toll on her studies and her self-esteem. Despite this, she recovered and went on to pursue graduate studies in mass communications, aspiring to a career in business and financial journalism. In 2013, she was diagnosed for a second time. “I will remember that day forever,” she says. “I felt very fearful and helpless about what was happening. It seemed like my life was coming to a standstill all over again.”
Nandita’s second bout of TB was particularly severe – she underwent five major surgeries in the space of three months and was bedridden for many months at a time. In November 2013, she lost her hearing suddenly due to the side effects of a TB drug. “I had not even been told that this was a possible outcome,” Nandita says. “I felt cheated and had lost faith in science by this point. My illness had not only shattered my self-esteem and compromised my future, but it was putting an immense financial and emotional strain on my family too.”
An opportunity to rediscover her love of dance marked a turning point in Nandita’s recovery. Having danced from an early age, with training in the classical Indian dance style of Bharatanatyam, she was contacted by her dance teacher who invited her to take part in a class. “After many months of being completely isolated from the outside world and feeling hopeless about the future, I realised I needed to take charge of my life,” she says.
Nandita attended the class and began dancing again, teaching herself to convert music into numbers to be able to dance in time and sync. She also began working as a business journalist for The Economic Times, gaining a valuable sense of independence after four years of being unemployed. At the same time, she set out to find out more about what had happened to her – at the forefront of her mind was the question of why she had lost her hearing. She reached out to public health researchers via social media and began her journey into TB advocacy.
“My biggest realisation was that what happened to me was not a question of bad luck or destiny; it was a result of larger processes and policy decisions.”
Nandita advocates for improving patients’ awareness of the disease and potential side effects, for more funding for TB research and diagnostics, and for access to counselling for TB patients. She also provides mentoring and advice to TB patients who reach out to her for support. In 2018, Nandita delivered the opening address at the UN General Assembly’s High-Level Meeting on TB.
“World leaders need to recognise that TB is not some forgotten illness – despite it being both preventable and curable, millions of people across the globe are suffering with the consequences of this infectious disease.”
Watching the COVID-19 pandemic unfold over the past year has been all too familiar for Nandita. She hopes that this will be a final wake-up call for governments on the urgent need for investment in public health.
On the MPP, Nandita is gaining a broader understanding of the political and economic factors that affect policymaking decisions. She has enjoyed the opportunity to pursue an interdisciplinary programme while still maintaining her focus on health policy.
For anyone who is considering applying to the MPP but is concerned about accessibility, know that it should be no obstacle and there is plenty of support available from the School and the wider University.
“While the pandemic and online classes have posed unique communication challenges for me, the staff and faculty have been really good at accommodating my accessibility issues and we worked together to find a solution for me to be able to engage during lectures and seminars.”
Nandita’s summer project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will explore vaccine hesitancy, and she hopes to continue working at the intersection of health, politics and policy to improve patient rights and call attention to injustices in the sphere of public health.
Nandita is a Chevening/Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Scholar