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May 7, 2014 - USA Medical Students Make a Difference in Rwanda
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rwanda group-web.jpgThe Christian Medical Ministry of South Alabama (CMMSA) returned March 12 from a medical mission trip to Rwanda, Africa. The group, including 11 University of South Alabama medical students and six physicians, spent a month working at Kibogora Hospital in Eastern Rwanda. The hospital is roughly a 230-bed self-supported facility that has two operating rooms and wards for internal medicine, pediatrics, surgery, and obstetrics and gynecology.

The physicians on the trip included Dr. Carl Albertson, retired private orthopaedic surgeon; Dr. Jon Simmons, USA general surgeon; Dr. Richard Whitehurst, USA neonatologist; Dr. Alana Schilthuis, USA internal medicine chief resident; Dr. Gwen DeLeon, USA surgery resident; and Dr. Jeremy Drake, USA surgery resident.

While in Rwanda, medical students were able to directly help patients in the area and receive hands-on experience. “We were able to perform about 35 operative procedures each week,” said Dr. Simmons, who has previously traveled to Cameroon, Ghana and Rwanda on medical missions.

For fourth-year USA medical student Stephanie Stopka, her most rewarding experience stemmed from a frightened and timid 7-year-old boy who came to the emergency department with a septic hip. He was unable to walk and upon examination, was even more ill than they thought. “As I began taking over his care, I learned more than I expected,” said Stopka, “and I think he did too.”

Stopka said she had to examine her patient while encouraging him and his mother -- who never left his side -- to smile and laugh.

“I went from dreading our daily visit – because I didn't want to scare him – to being excited to check up on him as he began to trust me,” she said. “I continually gained his mother's trust and appreciation as she saw my concern and the time I'd spend with him.”

Days after visiting with her young patient, Stopka was in one of the surgical wards when she saw a boy walking down the aisle with a walker. “I didn't know of a boy on this ward who was using a walker,” she said. “When I looked more closely, it was my friend! Yesterday he was bedridden on oxygen in the intensive care unit and now he was walking and putting weight on his hip we had treated,” she said.

It was at that moment Stopka realized she was making a difference. “Despite all of the frustrations of language barriers, cultural differences and fears of safety, the entire trip became worth it at that exact moment. I was doing what God had called me into medicine for – to help patients.”

Dr. Simmons said each student and resident on the trip was influenced in a positive way, which he believes will translate to a more compassionate and caring physician in the future.

“A simple gesture of kindness – such as holding the hand of a child or praying with a mother – can be encouraging and inspire hope in otherwise dire circumstances,” he said. “These types of interactions are perfect examples of the power and influence of a compassionate physician, which is exactly the type of physician that we are trying to produce at USA.”

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