Notes from a Medical Student:

Building Connections, Changing Lives

This past weekend, my parents came to Dayton for a quick visit and to drop off some much-needed groceries, since medical school doesn't afford me the time or money to acquire my own food. To keep them occupied for a while, I gave them photos from my trips to India and San Francisco this summer.

When I took a break from tidying up, my mother showed me a handful of photos she had questions about. Mostly she commented on how crowded the hospital in India was, how tiny the babies, or just how generally "different" everything looked. Looking at the pictures, all I could think was that they were a poor substitute for actually being there. How do you connect with a human life through a photo? How do you convey to someone just how devastating a broken bone or treatable disease can be for patients confronting social stigma and inadequate supplies of medication, nurses and hospital beds?

When I was 17, I went with a group of doctors and aide workers to provide basic medical care to people who make their homes in the garbage dumps that dot the outskirts of Mexico City. This trip was difficult for me, as it was the first time I saw extreme poverty and need. Nothing in the United States comes close, not even in our poorest neighborhoods. It would have been easy to be overwhelmed by it all, and I was, but more than anything, I was also intrigued. Most of the medical care that takes place in these outreach settings is of the most rudimentary kind. There were no brain surgeries or heart transplants performed. Yet still, surrounded by dead rats and trash, I watched doctors change people's lives simply by treating their infections and easing their pain. I began to see that there is an art and a skill to medicine that can, despite some difficulty, overcome cultural or socioeconomic barriers. Although it would be years before I decided to pursue a career in medicine, on that trip I developed a new respect for doctors.

In the 10 years since that visit, I have been lucky enough to travel extensively throughout South and East Asia and have learned a great deal about some of the diseases and health issues that continue to plague our world. This summer, I returned to one of my favorite places: India. With tetanus, diphtheria, dengue fever and malaria still pressing concerns, India can provide quite an educational experience for any health care professional. Like every population, India also has its own prominent genetic diseases, such as Thalassemia. Although treatable, Thalassemia carries such a social stigma that children born with it are often allowed to die.

I will never forget the day we visited the Thalassemia clinic and met a little boy whose mother brought him from far away for treatment every month. It was his birthday, and the blood transfusion he needed would require him to spend most of the day on a bed with a needle in his arm. Seeing how unhappy he was, the other students and I used our break to run to a shop around the corner and buy him a cake. As we sang Happy Birthday and his mother helped him pass out pieces of cake for everyone, I saw him smile for the only time that day. In a life so devastated by a disease that in the U.S. is treated far more efficiently and without the stigma, a little bit of kindness can go a long way.

While infectious and genetic diseases often draw international students, less glamorous aspects of health care also desperately need attention. In the villages we visited in India, nothing affected residents' health more than a lack of clean water. Such a simple thing, and one we take for granted every time we go to the faucet. We often forget how much we have to be grateful for, and our responsibility as human beings to do what we can, where we can.

I often find it hard to explain to people why I keep going back. Besides my love of the colors, food and people of India, I also think about my first trip to Mexico, when I saw people from such diverse backgrounds connecting through medicine. I love that aspect of medicine, and I love the people I have met and the lives I have touched through my trips abroad. Like photos, my explanations may never fully convey my experiences and the effect they have had on me, but I know I will continue to reach out in this way, whenever I can, for the rest of my life.