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April 19, 2013 - Senior Medical Students Return from Medical Mission Trip to Rwanda, Africa

USA senior medical students
Katy Lalor (left) and Laura Jelf (right)
The day after Match Day, eight senior medical students at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine left for a month-long medical mission trip to Rwanda, Africa.

While there, they assisted local Rwandan and Congolese staff physicians at Kibogora Hospital, a roughly 230 bed self-supported facility in Eastern Rwanda that has two operating rooms and wards for internal medicine, pediatrics, surgery and OBGYN.

USA neonatologist Dr. Keith Peevy, NICU nurse Jamie Partain and USA trauma surgeon Dr. Jon Simmons were also members of the medical mission team.

Joseph Sewell, a senior medical student at USA, said he went to Africa because of the great need. “I have had a passion for Africa for a long time now, and I am grateful to have served there,” he said.

Sewell spent most of the month on the internal medicine team, caring for adult patients admitted to the hospital.

“We were given much of the responsibility we will soon receive in residency, seeing patients each day and directing their care with our own patient care plans and orders,” he said. “We practiced our ultrasound skills on patients, performed lumbar punctures, incised and drained abscesses, and took part in several other diagnostic tests.”

Sewell is entering residency in internal medicine with a plan to practice primary care medicine in both the inpatient and outpatient settings. He has dreams of future missions work, providing for the medical and spiritual needs of patients internationally and at home.

Senior medical student Laura Jelf said her most memorable experience on the trip was autonomy in the operating room.

“Performing cases based on my own knowledge and experience was exciting, although being called Dr. Laura took some getting used to,” she said. “Many of the physicians travel from the Congo to work at the hospital, and there is only one general surgeon there. It was nice to be able to help out and give them a break.”

Jelf said the group treated a large range of conditions that you don’t normally see in the United States, from malaria to advanced gastric cancer.

By traveling to Rwanda, the group encountered first-hand the lack of funds needed to properly care for patients.

“One of the most important things I learned on this trip was how to care for patients with incredibly limited resources,” said Mary Margaret Clapp, another senior medical student at USA.

“Medicine in a third world country was a bit of a culture shock,” Jelf added. “It shows you how wasteful we can be and why our medical costs are so high.”

Jelf said that in Rwanda, they make do with what they have. “They are not picky or demanding, and they don’t complain when problems arise,” she said. “They simply find a solution.”

Jelf said she hopes to take their creativity, attitudes and resourcefulness with her during her residency years and beyond. “It was great to see how knowledgeable they were at diagnosing – without the extra tests, CT scans and other technology that we use at home.”

Clapp, who will be entering a family medicine residency, said she spent much of her time in the hospital, working on the neonatology and pediatrics team. She said her most memorable experience was holding a micropreemie while he took his last breaths, knowing she couldn't do anything to help him. Read more about her experience here.

This year’s trip was the second medical mission trip to Rwanda with senior medical students. A trip is already being planned for next year to the same location.

“I encourage everyone to go and serve his fellow man,” Sewell said. “To quote Albert Schweitzer, ‘I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.’”

To learn more about the medical mission trip, visit  the group’s blog.

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