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Dome - The Journey of Jacob Puka

Dome, Nov. 2009

The Journey of Jacob Puka

By: Mat Edelson
Date: November 9, 2009

A student training to be a nuclear medicine technologist was once one of the Lost Boys of Sudan

Jacob Puka
Jacob Puka had many close calls en route to the United States from his native village in Sudan.

There is more that differentiates Jacob Puka from his classmates than his lilting voice and precise diction. Although he conducts radioactive scans and creates electronic reports for physicians just like other nuclear medicine technology students, his road to Hopkins seems miraculous, even to him. 

Puka, 29, is one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” the name given to nearly 3,800 young men who were brought to the United States in 2001 after years in refugee camps. Nearly a decade after Puka was plucked from a Kenyan camp, he has finally put enough mental mileage behind him to reconcile his present with his past.

When he was just 7, the army raided his small village in southern Sudan; Puka’s father sent his son fleeing into the jungle with a cousin, uncle and a stream of panicked villagers. It was the beginning of a 12-year, three-camp odyssey that covered nearly a thousand miles traveled on foot, a march marked by peril. The berries on the trees could sustain—or poison. The men just under that next tree could be friends—or armed soldiers. If Puka’s band of travelers hadn’t chanced upon friendly rebels and Red Cross care packages, they would have died.

Puka’s journey from refugee to Hopkins student was sustained by people determined to maintain a sense of dignity and normality in the most difficult of conditions. After fleeing his village in 1987, Jacob landed in an Ethiopian refugee camp where measles and typhoid were prevalent. Surprisingly, however, his education continued. Classes, he says, were held under a tree. “The sand at your feet was the blackboard for learning the alphabet. The teacher would write an ‘a’ in the sand in front of you, and you’d write an ‘a.’ Then you’d erase that.”

An outbreak of civil war forced Puka out of Ethiopia, back into Sudan and then into Kenya. The camp there was arid, food was scarce, but it was safe. In time, a few secondary schools were built, and Puka was one of the few refugees chosen (out of the 75,000 Sudanese in camp) to attend. He focused on the sciences.

In 2001, he was told that he was going to someplace called America. A few Michael Jackson videos were his only point of reference. A visitor from Boston, in the camp to provide an orientation on American culture, brought a chunk of ice to class to represent what snow was like. “They passed it around and we were running away from it, it was so cold,” says Puka. “Snow became my only concern. I asked him where the hottest place in America was. He said ‘Arizona.’ So I asked God to send me to Arizona.”

He lucked into San Diego instead, where Catholic Charities found manufacturing work for him and his fellow Lost Boys. A family gave Puka and other Sudanese living quarters so they could attend Point Loma Nazarene University. Puka graduated with a biology and chemistry degree. He intended to become a physician’s assistant, which required at least 1,000 hours of hospital work. A friend in Baltimore helped land him a job at Anne Arundel Medical Center as an escort.

It was there, wheeling patients down to get CT scans and MRIs, that Puka’s attention turned to the 14-month nuclear medicine technology program at Hopkins, which combines theoretical training with hands-on clinical experience. Now he works with patients at Hopkins as well as community hospitals such as St. Agnes and Sinai.

“To have this opportunity given my background,” he says, “if you had told me that one day I’d go to school at Hopkins and take care of people with cancer and broken bones, I would not have believed you. And that’s a big understatement!”