WASHINGTON - Among the
1994 graduates of the Harvard School of Public Health, few had as glowing a
record of academic excellence or as bright a promise of service in medicine as
Vineeta Rastogi. The 26-year-old epidemiologist from Maryland was chosen by
her classmates to be their commencement speaker, an honor to which she
responded with 15 minutes of eloquence and idealism.
"Sectarianism," Ms. Rastogi said "is the
worst disease we face. Rwanda saw 200,000 people hacked to death in less than
a month. No disease is that cruel, that uncaring, that unremitting. Even
doctors and nurses who are not killed by the hatred must flee from it. Our
work, public health, becomes irrelevant when hate-filled strife becomes the
"Luckily, unlike so many of the diseases we
are fighting," she added, "a cure for strife exists. It is called education."
Earlier in her speech, Ms. Rastogi spoke
passingly of her recent hospitalization for cancer. Many of her classmates had
been praying ardently for her recovery. She was everyone's friend, a giver, a
listener and someone whose thirst for social justice prompted those around her
to push themselves to become better people.
Vineeta died of
cancer on Dec. 6. at home with her husband of one year and her parents. I was
one of Vineeta's many, many friends, being her teacher at the University of
Maryland for two semesters in 1989-90 and having her as an assistant for a
third. She graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.
When I gave Vineeta
extra books to read, she would bring them back the next week and ask for more.
She was every teacher's dream student: The more she read and wrote, the more
questions she asked, which led to the true excitement of learning: questioning
As with many students in their early 20s
who find themselves awash with talents and graces, Vineeta often wondered how
and where she might use them. I suggested the Peace Corps for a start and
invited Loret Ruppe, the Peace Corps director then. to speak to the class.
Vineeta was sold. Two months after
graduation she was in Zaire. In Kingandu, a rural village, she lived in a mud
hut with no water or electricity. And loved it. She funded and ran the first
family planning program in the area.
While sitting in an outdoor café with some
other volunteers one afternoon in Kinshasa, Zaire's capital on the Congo
River. Vineeta met her future husband, Brian Hennessey. He was bicycling
around the country and passing through town. He stopped when he saw "the most
beautiful woman I'd ever seen.
They didn't marry
right away. After the Peace Corps, and after having had her eyes opened to
the need for medical help for rural people. Vineeta enrolled in the Harvard
School of Public Health. Incipiently, she understood a truth that often sails
10 feet over the heads of idealists: To do good, you need a skill. Don't
answer the call to service with only sentiment, answer it with a usable
Vineeta that would be
epidemiology: learning how diseases spread in a given population and how to
prevent or eliminate them. Some astute professors at Harvard aware that for
some students moments of revelation are as likely to come outside the
classroom as in, encouraged Vineeta to move beyond Cambridge as much as
And did she. In the
summer of 1993, she and Brian went to
bicycling 1,000 miles from south to north, visiting health clinics and
hospitals along the way. During spring break that year, she was in El
Salvador interviewing doctors and nurses who treated victims of land mines.
She spent time in health clinics in Cuba and India.
For all of this. and for being one of the
rare ones who aimed higher than high, the deans of Harvard honored Vineeta at
graduation with the Albert Schweitzer Award. It was fitting. At Maryland,
one of the essays that most stirred Vineeta was the missionary physician's
"Teaching Reverence for Life," and in particular these lines: "No one has the
right to take for granted his own advantages over others in health, in
talents, in ability, in success, in a happy childhood or congenial home
conditions. One must pay a price for all these boons. What one owes in
return is a special responsibility for other lives.''
Vineeta knew what she owed. And public
health one of the highest callings of all, was her plan to pay in full. She
started well, by going all over and all out.