Even before a baby is conceived, lifestyle factors can influence the health of the fetus and child. It was this fact that motivated Saima Sachwani, assistant professor at the Aga Khan University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, to pursue a career in public health as a researcher. She was also recently recognised as one of the World Health Organization’s 100 Outstanding Nurses.

Saima first became interested in public health in 1998 when she started working in a neonatal intensive care unit after receiving her nursing diploma. There, she witnessed the prevalence of prematurity and low birth weight among infant patients. It was painful for her to see newborns crying, often lying helplessly on a ventilator.

“That is something that should not be the fate of these newborns,” she said. “Everyone deserves to be born healthy and have a good quality of life.”

Saima soon learned that trying to control babies’ weight after birth was not solving the problem — only managing it. Preventing disease from the onset and promoting a healthy lifestyle for mother and child was a more effective solution for childhood health conditions such as this. Actively promoting childhood nutrition and health would also reduce the risk of disease later in life.

“In the first two years of life, if the child is given proper nutrition, the noncommunicable disease burden can be controlled by quite a magnitude,” she said.

As a researcher and instructor in public health, Saima notes that one of the unique features and challenges in this field is the amount of time it can take to witness positive lifestyle changes within society.

“In public health, if you would like to change a single behaviour — for example, tobacco addiction or use of vaccines — it can take up to 10 to 15 years or even longer,” she said. “If you lecture people not to do something, it’s also more difficult to make them adopt good behaviour.”

When teaching community health nurses about health education, Saima also finds the traditional method of lecturing to be ineffective. Instead, she has adopted a more innovative approach by integrating drama, theatre, and the performing arts into the nursing curricula.

“Tales, drama, and theatre are historically proven to trigger our emotions and create a greater impact on our memory and feelings,” she said.

To teach nursing students about breast cancer, Saima and her students drafted and performed a short story about a young woman who suffered from the disease. The woman was about to graduate from university and get married, but before her graduation day, she noticed an abnormal lump in her breast. Because of cultural stigma, she chose not to tell her mother or friends. Two months later, on the day of her graduation, she felt pain in the same area but again chose to hide it. Days before her wedding, the pain worsened and her mother began to inquire what was wrong. The young woman denied that she felt pain, although something was seemingly wrong. After marriage, the young woman finally told her husband that she was unwell. When he took her to the doctor, they found out that she had an advanced stage of breast cancer. Had she come earlier, there was a good chance of treatment and recovery, but now it was too late.

Saima described that the story left an impact on many of her students, particularly the way that it aroused their feelings and enabled them to understand and relate to the emotional impact of health conditions.

“Many women in the community had tears in their eyes. Even after the session ended, they wanted to stay back and ask questions,” she said. “If we want prevention and messages to be clear, convincing, and promising, we have to adapt to these innovative strategies.”

Saima expressed how blessed she feels to be a nurse and to receive recognition from the WHO for her work. “It is a shared award, a shared recognition, and a shared celebration for the nursing community [and] for AKDN,” she said.