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Student Documents Grim Lives of Romania's TB Patients

Jonathan Stillo is a doctoral candidate and medical anthropologist whose dissertation research, which began in 2006, took him to Romania, where he lives among and documents the lives of chronic tuberculosis (TB) patients, eating the same food and walking the same cheerless corridors.

Drawn to Romania’s “fairytale landscapes, castles, and some of the last truly untouched wilderness in Europe” as a 2001 undergraduate member of a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad trip, it was not until he was a doctoral student that Romania’s high rate of TB—by far the highest in the European Union—and its economically inefficient treatment facilities came to his attention and provided motivation and subject matter for his dissertation: “‘Magic Mountains’ in Romania: Citizenship, Poverty and the New Role of Tuberculosis Sanatoria,” a title inspired by Thomas Mann’s classic novel about a protagonist’s prolonged stay in a sanatorium.

Various grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fulbright-Hays program, the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, IREX (the International Research and Exchange Board), and the Romanian Cultural Institute have facilitated his five years of research. He also received $10,000 as winner of the GC’s Randolph Braham Dissertation Fellowship competition.

In addition to his research, Stillo serves as liaison between Romania’s National TB Program and the handful of struggling nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that work with TB patients—particularly the twenty percent with chronic conditions. Overwhelmingly poor, they “tend to have multiple social and medical problems, of which TB is only one,” explains Stillo. “They begin with normal cases of nonresistant TB that could be easily and cheaply treated, but if it’s treated without regard to these other problems, they often relapse.”

Stillo has traveled across Romania by bus, visiting TB hospitals, dispensaries, and sanatoria. Everywhere he goes, he hears yet more stories he feels need to be told. Yet, laments Stillo, there is little mention of the disease on Romania’s Ministry of Health web page.

“Romania should not need anthropologists to catalog and document the causes of people’s TB-based suffering,” asserts Stillo, who gets tested regularly and takes other precautions, given the population he works with. “I want to see Romania achieve a public health standard that does not require NGOs to work on behalf of TB patients. I want to contribute to minimizing the occurrence of TB-related preventable death.”

Stillo is working with adviser Ida Susser (Prof., Hunter, Anthropology, Public Health) and plans to defend his dissertation in September 2013. “Jonathan’s combined understanding of medical anthropology and the importance of public health make what he is doing a phenomenal piece of work,” she avowed.

Submitted on: DEC 31, 2011

Category: Anthropology, Student News