In 2017, Severna Park native Liv Romano traveled to Zimbabwe to support elephant conservation. Within six months, she was back in Africa, this time in South Africa to volunteer in community health. That year, she fell in love with Africa, and knew that she would return one day to make a larger difference.
Now, Romano is moving to South Africa to establish a public health clinic and to fight human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS.)
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Romano began to take her dream to move to Africa more seriously, and made the decision to get a master’s degree in public health from Temple University and start her journey to become an epidemiologist that focuses on HIV/AIDS.
“I am one of those people that thrives in chaos, and COVID is no exception,” Romano said. “COVID has helped me affirm that I wanted to be an infectious disease epidemiologist, and without it I wouldn’t have made this major career choice.”
Romano’s organization will be called LIV+, pronounced “live positive.”
“I have bipolar 1 disorder and Liv+ was an idea born from my first manic episode in 2018,” Romano said. “I was interning at the International Rescue Committee in my last semester at Towson University and I had to come up with a project idea for my internship. I came up with my community health and development organization, LIV+.”
Romano said she was not in the condition to proceed with LIV+ at the time, but now she is more ready than ever to make it a reality. The clinic will have a background in mental health, and she hopes to also combat mental health stereotypes surrounding bipolar disorder.
Romano chose to open her clinic in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, a province feeling the effects of two pandemics. KwaZulu-Natal is the epicenter of the HIV/AIDS crisis and a hotspot for COVID-19. The two viruses are a dangerous mixture, as people diagnosed with HIV have compromised immune systems.
Romano said that education is a privilege, and she is lucky enough to have access to higher education. She recalled an instance where she had to explain germs and how they spread on surfaces to a nurse on her first volunteer trip to KwaZulu-Natal. She intends to use her education to better the health care system in South Africa.
“I just think that there is a lot that I can teach to the South African community, but I know I'm going to learn way more than I could teach anyone,” Romano said. “I hope I come back and I know that I am a better person because of my experience abroad.”
To make connections before her clinic is built, Romano has applied to work with Doctors Without Borders, which is already established in South Africa.
She is currently working with a company called Container Homes Za to build the clinic, as well as a tiny home. Both will be made from a repurposed shipping container, which is sustainable and allows Romano to expand easily.
“There’s a lot of room for expansion, which is what I want to do,” Romano said. “I want to grow as an epidemiologist in South Africa and be a vital part of the community, because I have fallen in love with this community.”
The clinic will act as a health education center while Romano establishes herself. Eventually, she would like to begin testing, administering vaccines and doing blood work.
“It's going to be a public health clinic for anyone,” Romano said. “We are going to start in education and community outreach. We will host HIV education seminars, child birthing classes, parenting classes, safe sex classes, and I have some teacher friends who want to help teach English.”
Romano hopes that her clinic will make an international impact and that volunteers will come from all over the world to make a difference.
South Africa is currently on lockdown due to COVID-19. Romano expected to move before 2021, but she has decided to wait another year and continue to develop her plan and go to graduate school. In the meantime, she is working as a COVID-19 contact tracer and enjoys the work she is doing.
Romano plans to return to the United States after a few years in Africa. She hopes to run for public office and be the first person in her family to receive a Ph.D.
“I really want to leave an impact,” she said. “I want to leave something for this world that I can be proud of and my family can be proud of. That is very important to me.”
For years, Romano has dreamed of moving to Africa and making a difference, and soon it will become her reality.
“I just feel so lucky,” Romano said. “I feel like my dreams are coming true every day.”
Romano has established a GoFundMe page where she will raise money for her clinic and provide updates on the clinic and her move.