If you’ve ever seen someone strolling down Locust with a pair of purple Beats on, it’s pretty likely that it was Heta Patel (C '21). “If you ask any of my friends, it's an identifying feature of who I am,” she explains. “There've been some people I've run into who were like, ‘Oh my god, you're the purple Beats girl!’”
In between her Beats–equipped walks, Heta would spend a lot of time in the Kelly Writers House and in the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) squad room. Recently, she’s also been spending a lot of time in her half–basement apartment with only one window, which she jokingly refers to as a "cave." “If you were to say I’m a bit of a vampire right now, I wouldn’t be surprised,” she says.
Even while living in a dark basement, Heta still beams when she talks about her time at Penn. One of her favorite experiences was when she accidentally established herself as the go–to person for bike maintenance among her friends, after being MERT’s bike engineer for a semester. “In the beginning, I knew nothing,” Heta laughs. “I watched a lot of German YouTube videos trying to figure it out.”
In addition to teaching her some basic mechanical skills, MERT was an important part of Heta's experience in learning crucial clinical skills that have helped her along her pre–med journey. But this past semester, MERT has also focused on ensuring their EMTs' safety during the pandemic—developing new cleaning protocols and screening every patient for COVID–19.
Being an EMT with MERT for Heta also meant doing what she could to alleviate some of the stress of being a health care worker during the pandemic by taking some of the non–life–threatening patients. “We were doing something—or as much as we could, really,” she says.
But this wasn’t the only way that Heta attempted to support essential workers. Early in the pandemic, her friend Preethi Kumaran (C'20) reached out with an idea to write letters to these workers, and before long, Heta and a few other friends had joined in. They ended up co–founding Lockdown Letters, which quickly snowballed into a mass effort to collect and distribute these letters of gratitude. Recently, they hit the milestone of 20,000 letters sent to hospitals in all 50 states.
“We felt kind of bad about just sitting inside and not feeling like we could contribute,” Heta says. “And we saw how much the pandemic was affecting health care workers, as well as other frontline workers who were staffing grocery stores and running public transportation, and [we saw] the effect that it was taking on their mental health.”
While she doesn’t have a favorite submission, she did recall one writer in particular whose letters made an impression on her. The writer was Penn alumna Doris Cochran–Fikes (C '72), a multiple–time cancer survivor.
“She would submit letters, poems, and just really heartfelt, emotional messages,” Heta says. “She would put so much time and care into them, and would send us one—especially in the beginning—every week. Seeing her dedication to helping others was really inspiring.”
They’ve also gotten submissions from kids as young as 3 years old, who draw little pictures of the health care professionals or grocery store workers that they’re sending the letters to. “Gratitude is a skill that can be cultivated at all ages,” Heta explains.
Between being an EMT, president of MEDLIFE, editor–in–chief of Doublespeak, and co–founder of Lockdown Letters, it seems like Heta spends a lot of time going back and forth between health and language. But these seemingly disparate interests actually converge into a single passion—global health, especially violence prevention.
“I really like connecting with people, and part of that is through learning languages,” Heta explains. “So I minored in Hispanic studies, and I knew that I wanted to do work as a physician both here in the United States and in Latin America.”
A big part of this passion came from her childhood. Heta grew up in Tampa, Fla., in a neighborhood with a large immigrant population. “As a kid, a lot of my friends were either the children of immigrants or their parents were,” she says. “And that meant I was exposed to lots of different languages and cultures.”
Her visits to see extended family in India also shaped how she understood global inequalities in health care access. “Seeing the disparity that exists there compelled me to want to do work abroad,” Heta explains.
She also went to Peru the summer after her first year as part of MEDLIFE’s service program, where she noticed a lot of the same issues that she saw at home in Philly. People in both regions were facing housing or food insecurity, which Heta described as “different circumstances, but similar themes.”
This is also part of what pushed her to eventually become MEDLIFE’s president. While many global health organizations focus solely on international partnerships, MEDLIFE at Penn also emphasizes the needs of the local West Philadelphia community.
“We've been able to teach nutrition lessons at a local high school, volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House, volunteer with Books Through Bars, and provide food relief,” Heta says. “MEDLIFE … really changed the way I see public health and global health.”
Despite her very STEM–centric resume, Heta has always had a deep love for language and poetry. “I am a humanities girl through and through,” she says. “I'm pre–med, but, really, I'm the happiest when I'm creative, and I'm reading and I'm writing.”
Coming into Penn, Heta knew she wanted to join one of the literary magazines here. After perusing the options at the Kelly Writers House during her first year, she discovered Doublespeak—a magazine specializing in translations of poems. She quickly fell in love with it, and by her senior year, had become its editor–in–chief.
When asked about her favorite poem she’s gotten to publish through the magazine, Heta has to pause for a minute. She decides on a recent submission, a type of ancient Chinese poem called a chain verse. “You have characters listed in a ring, and you read the first character, and then you read the first and second, and then … you go all the way around,” Heta explains, gesturing with her hand to explain the poem’s shape. “And each line is different, because characters change their meaning depending on what they’re next to.”
Heta also credits Doublespeak with strengthening her interest in global health. “It gives me a richer understanding of culture, of nuances in language, of translation in itself as an artistic medium,” she says. “And when you're working in health care spaces, you're going to have to translate. And it's made me really, really conscious about the way I use my words, because … translating every word counts, and every word is different.”
During her second time doing health care work in Latin America, Heta was conducting diabetes research in Guatemala as part of Penn’s Guatemala Health Initiative. But while she was interviewing diabetes patients, she started to notice signs of relationship violence in some of her patients.
Heta quickly realized that the issue couldn’t be ignored. “A lot of times in interviews with patients who were suffering from diabetes, many of the women would complain about instances of domestic abuse, or they would credit a traumatic, abusive incident with the start of the diabetes,” she says.
She also knew that as an outsider to the community, she didn’t have the knowledge or understanding to take on such a complex problem. She didn’t even have the language skills necessary to converse deeply with many of the women she treated because most of them spoke Spanish as a secondary language to their native Tz’utujil. Instead, her host mother connected her to a local NGO leader named Juanita, who eventually sat down and spoke to Heta at length about the problem.
Heta and another Penn senior, Connor Hardy (C '21), applied for the Davis Projects for Peace grant to fund Colectivo Ix Colibrí, an organization founded by them and four other people from the United States and Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. They planned a summer full of programming that consisted of “anti–violence workshops for children, at–risk mothers and health care workers, and then also develop[ing] a safe house.”
But after COVID–19 canceled their plans, they decided to switch gears and began producing educational content for their social media instead, hoping that this would lay the groundwork for future violence prevention efforts. A quick scroll through their Facebook reveals various video and textual content explaining key issues surrounding sexual and relationship violence in Spanish and English.
Now, Heta looks forward to this summer, when she plans to return to Guatemala alongside Connor to continue the anti–violence education they began on Facebook. They’re also planning to apply for official NGO status so the organization can continue doing this important anti–violence work after they leave.
She’ll also be returning to Penn in the fall—this time as a medical student. “I'm definitely excited to be back in Philly, and continuing to do a lot of the work that I've been able to do,” Heta says. One of her main commitments will be continuing to work with United Community Clinic, where she was previously the undergraduate coordinator, and where she will continue working as a medical student.
So if you missed out on seeing Heta and her purple Beats wandering around campus these past four years, maybe you'll run into her during the next few.