WVU doctoral candidate makes Virgin Islands a little safer

Surf injuries, even falling coconuts present health hazards

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – When West Virginia University graduate student Ekta Choudhary arrived in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, for her six-week internship with the National Park Service’s Risk Management Program, she was amazed to find that parks officials had no sophisticated way to keep track of injuries or to know where visitors were taken for treatment.

Choudhary is working on her Ph.D. in public health science in the WVU School of Medicine Department of Community Medicine.  Her role as an intern was to come up with ways to make the park experience safer for the park’s annual visitors.

Ekta Choudhary, far right, during her internship in the Virgin Islands



More than a million people visit the U.S. Virgin Islands a year. One of the objectives of the internship was to set up a system to document all the injuries that happen on park property.

Sure, park service staff knew that surfers occasionally suffered muscle fatigue or that people got hurt in car crashes. But they didn’t know which roads were the most dangerous or what hidden hazards might be awaiting hikers on the island’s many trails. Nor did they know which beaches had the highest surf or what other hidden hazards might be out there in the park. 

“On St. John, there was only one hospital, so it was easier to capture data on injuries,” Choudhary said. “The data mainly included information on date, type of injury, gender of the person and location of the injury.”

Choudhary needed to know much more than that.

“The purpose was to know what kind of injuries occur in order to know the severity level,” Choudhary said. “For example, sea urchin stings are not as serious as drowning. If you know the severity of the injury, you can design preventive measures accordingly. If one beach is known to have more sea urchin or jellyfish, then the park needs to invest in signs warning people about injuries and make sure that lifeguards keep a good supply of medication that will help people with the stings.”

So Choudhary rolled up her sleeves and prepared to set to work.

“On my first day, I asked for the data, and they said, ‘What are data?’” Choudhary recalled.

The valuable information she wanted was sitting in piles or stacked up in cabinets in offices. None of it had been entered into electronic form in a way that could be analyzed.

Choudhary took those stacks of papers from the past five years, spending her first week of work putting the information into a database. She then collected information including what hospitals people were being taken to, which roads were the most hazardous and which beaches produced the most surf injuries. This formed the basis of a risk-assessment tool, a new injury data-collection system and a new safety plan.

Public safety is important in a place like St. John, where two-thirds of the island is a U.S. national park, said Sara Newman, Dr.P.H., of the National Park Service, who supervised Choudhary’s fieldwork in St. John.

Developing a risk-assessment tool to help park officials decide where to focus their efforts to prevent injury, Choudhary evaluated and rated where risks were high, medium or low. The assessments helped identify what type of gear visitors to the park would need to prevent injury.

Choudhary said the rating of the risk depends on location.

“Coconuts falling on someone’s head or on a car can cause serious damage. If coconuts are not removed from high traffic areas, or from beaches, in time this can cause serious damage,” Choudhary said. “A coconut in hurricane wind can be like a torpedo and cause serious damage, so removal of coconuts will help reduce injury.”

As a result of her work, the safety committee employed the risk-assessment tool to identify coconuts as a high risk at one beach. They removed 1,400 coconuts from all over the park.

The new safety plan includes standard procedures such as making sure a law enforcement ranger is informed and ensuring that, once the situation is under control, the park service documents the event.

Jim Helmkamp, Ph.D., director of the WVU Injury Control Research Center, said Choudhary’s internship helped extend the Center’s reach beyond the state. Her accomplishments also could lead to opportunities for other students.

“Ms. Choudhary provided an excellent opportunity to grow professionally and apply the injury- prevention knowledge and skills she has learned in an academic environment to a real-world situation,” Helmkamp said.

Specializing in epidemiology (the study of health in populations) and biological statistics, the Indian-born Choudhary has been studying at WVU for the past seven years.  She is scheduled to earn her Ph.D. within the next year and a half.

Choudhary said her hands-on experience in the Virgin Islands was something that could not be taught in a classroom. 

“This is the real world. I told myself: This is your job, now let’s see what you can do,” Choudhary said. “This experience was not something you could find in a textbook or learn in a classroom. It was different from going to class, taking an exam, earn a grade and then claim that you know the information.”

Choudhary said managing people, resolving issues and bringing different personalities together to achieve a goal were all factors in her real world experience.

“At this point I can say I can do anything,” she said.

Newman said the success Choudhary achieved in working with the park was due not only to her skills as an epidemiologist and public health practitioner, but also to her ability to bring diverse people together for a common cause.

“Ekta is truly one of the most hardworking, dedicated and talented professionals with whom I have had the opportunity to work, and she is destined to make an enormous impact in the field.  Ekta gained deep respect and admiration for the work she did – from park staff in the field all the way to the highest levels within our organization," Newman said.

In addition to the six weeks in St. John, Choudhary also worked for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., from August to September. She was one of the first students to intern with the risk management program.


For more information:
Amy Johns, HSC News Service, 304-293-7087
EL/ab: 12-08-08

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