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GUMC Students Travel Abroad to Fulfill Missions

December 28, 2008 – The Medical Center’s Dr. Irma Frank calls them Georgetown’s “ambassadors for health.” They are the students who choose to serve and study abroad in developing countries such as Uganda, the Dominican Republic, rural Australia, India and more than 20 other countries all over the world.

Most students go with intentions to help people through health care, says Frank, associate dean for international programs at the School of Medicine. But what Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) students may not expect, she says, is that they end up receiving much more than they give. “The experience changes the students’ view of how medicine functions around the world, and opens their eyes to an underdeveloped part of the world.”

Georgetown medical student Shawn Corcoran (M’07) went to Uganda in the summer of 2007 to help set up a clinic in Fort Portal, at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountain Range in the western part of the country. There he witnessed the health consequences of poverty; patients would come to the clinic only after diseases had become untreatable.

Corcoran says the fondest memory of his experience involved a young boy named Stephen. The child came into the clinic with chronic osteomyelitis, a severe, persistent, and sometimes incapacitating, infection of bone and bone marrow. The Georgetown medical student was able to successfully treat Stephen for the illness.

“Like most meaningful experiences in life,” he says, “it was the people of Uganda that made my visit there so enriching. Dozens of patients brought forward the quality of my education and training at Georgetown as I managed to evaluate and sometimes treat them on my own.”

It’s the Jesuit ideal of “care of the whole person,” says Dr. Ray Mitchell, dean for medical education.

“Georgetown medicine is based on the care of the whole person in their world -- not ours,” he says referring to the medical center’s idea of bringing care to people in their own cultural context rather than expecting people to understand the Western approach.

Georgetown’s medical school curriculum gives first- and fourth-year students the opportunity to study abroad through the Office of International Programs. About 40 percent of Georgetown medical students will spend six to eight weeks overseas in developing countries, compared with about 15 to 20 percent on average for Georgetown’s peers institutions, according to Mitchell.

First-year students are matched with local mentors in a developing country and then guided through a health promotion program for that part of the country. They are exposed not only to different health systems, but different cultural and societal norms.

Additionally, the GUMC’s School of Nursing and Health Studies require undergraduates in the international health department to spend 12 weeks abroad doing field research in epidemiology and disease management.

Darwin Young (NHS‘08) spent a semester in an underserved community in rural Uganda participating in an internship with the country’s Ministry of Health. He ended up designing a study that analyzed the impact of public sector capacity of the distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets, a key tool in the global fight against malaria.

“By having to live and work in a different culture and (in an environment) vastly different from the classroom,” he says, “I had the opportunity to grow and mature -- not only intellectually, but personally.” 

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