By this time next week, UVM Larner College of Medicine medical students Katie Callahan '21 and Nina Dawson '21 will be 6,971 miles away from Vermont in Kampala, Uganda. The students are participating in the first-year summer Global Health elective through the Global Health Program
at the Larner College of Medicine and Western Connecticut Health Network.
In this two part series, we'll hear from both students about their expectations before they leave and, when they return, about their experiences when they arrive in Uganda.
Part 1: Preparation & Expectations
Q: What first sparked your interest in the Global Health Program?
: I have had experience in the global health arena prior to medical school. My mentor, Dr. Saunders, is the co-founder of the Mayflower Medical Outreach organization which works to provide hearing care by performing complex ear surgeries, fitting hearing aids, maintaining a hearing clinic, and running a school for deaf children. In only five days, we screened 92 patients and performed 25 surgeries.
In February of 2016, I travelled to Nicaragua for one of the medical outreach trips. I immediately fell in love with the country, the people, and global health as a whole. Just like locals, we drove to the hospital every morning in the back of a pickup truck. We spent 15-hour days in the OR, running two rooms at once for maximum efficiency. With only one anesthesia nurse and one scrub nurse on our team, we learned to communicate with the local nurses to perform the surgeries. The hospital in Estelí barely resembled those in the U.S. Antiquated hospital beds were crammed into large rooms, cloaked in an unforgettable stench of illness and disease. Pre-op and post-op were one and the same, and consisted of decrepit beds and plastic deck chairs where the patients waited prior to surgery, alongside those in recovery. Witnessing patient care in a drastically different setting was a formative experience for me. I now more deeply appreciate the need for—and opportunities to provide—improved health care globally. This experience also inspired a personal life goal of engaging in this kind of work as a physician in the future, through an existing organization or one that I might establish.
I think an aspect that drew me to the Global Health Initiative was that its really an exchange between our medical campus and all the other partner sites around the world. I feel like so often work in Global Health can be very one-sided and it was very clear to me from the very first presentation I attended that this program was about partnership and learning from one another.
Q: Have you ever traveled outside of the US before?
: Yes! I love traveling and have been lucky enough to do quite a bit: Europe (France, Italy, Denmark, U.K), Greece, Turkey, Nicaragua, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic. And, of course, Canada. Nina
: I was fortunate to have the opportunity to grow up outside of the US, mostly in Asia, and these foundational experiences have always motivated me to keep traveling and to have a bug of inquiry about different people and places. The two most formative travel experiences that I have had was first as a Youth Ambassador with UNA-USA/USAID prior starting college where I traveled to Namibia and South Africa and secondly, my experience as a medical assistant in a free clinic in Cusco, Peru where I lived for four months.
Q: Why Uganda?
(Other electives are Russia, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe)
Katie: When we found out we were going to Uganda, I was (and am) extremely excited! I have never been to Africa and I’m very excited to get there and start this experience!
Nina: In deciding which locations piqued my interests the most, I really wanted the opportunity to stay rooted and build connections somewhere. From all the glowing praise I heard from other students and faculty that have had experience going, Uganda seemed to have a very supportive and engaged community surrounding their sites.
Q: What are you doing to prepare for your trip - mentally, emotionally, physically, and educationally?
: The UVM Global Health Program has a fantastic course we have participated in throughout the past semester. This has included many speakers, physicians, and other residents/physicians who have participated in the program in previous years. They have covered topics ranging from global health expressed via art to women’s health or pediatric health globally.I am working my way through the pre-departure guide and learning my "10 words in _____."
Educationally, I have pulled together print sources/non-internet dependent resources to help inform my experience while simultaneously fit in some STEP-1 studying.
Aside from trying to get all the necessary paperwork and appointments in line before the trip, I’ve mostly just been trying to relax and unwind so that I can be refreshed and fully present to experience everything ahead of me!
Q: What are you most excited about?
: I am incredibly excited to get to the hospital and jump in. In Nicaragua, I 100% fell in love with the people and the country (and I’m hoping to have a different, yet comparable experience in Uganda).
: After the first year of studying, I’m so excited to have the opportunity to gain some clinical exposure this summer.
Q: Is there anything you're nervous about?
: I think going to a completely different country is always nerve-wracking – everything from travel to adjusting to cultural norms to knowing where the best bathrooms are in the hospital.
This will be one of the first trips where I have absolutely no context for the language; however, we’ve been assured that all of the doctors, nurses, and our hosts speak English and will be able to help us through.
: Not wanting to come back.
Q: What do you hope to gain from this experience?
: I think I am primarily very excited to experience how medicine is practiced at St. Stephen’s and connecting with the doctors, nurses, and other medical staff in Uganda. While in Nicaragua, I truly fell in love with the people and the country – everyone was so kind, caring, and thankful; and they brought an incredible culture, way of life, and completely different world view than my own. As a result, I permanently changed the way I viewed health care, my own privilege and many other aspects of my own life. I hope that I gain more insight into not only into the Ugandan culture, but also into my own background, beliefs, thought systems, and who I am within my worldview. And, of course, I hope to learn about the world of global health and inspire my future work as a physician in the global arena.
: I feel like a blank slate that has everything new to learn!--but if there is anything in particular that I would like to gain from this trip, I would love to gain a sliver of an insight into what particular health priorities and challenges that Ugandans feel are at the forefront of their health care system. I think a benefit of having this opportunity in global health prior to my clinical experience is that I can broaden my definition and perspective of what healthcare can look like prior to having the priming of what it manifests itself as here in the United States.
Q: Have you spoken with other students who have been to Uganda already with Global Health? What advice have they given you?
: We have spoken with last year’s participants at an annual pasta dinner hosted by Mariah (it was incredible!). Students offered great tips on what to bring, recommended clothing, and activities to do outside of the program during free time/weekends. My favorite piece of advice included bringing tons of Crystal Light to flavor the boiled – and very smoky-tasting water -- I have already purchased an industrial amount.
: The advice that we’ve received has been to be open to new experiences and to make sure we ask questions and seek out opportunities to learn about anything that comes up that we might be interested in.