Seeing, Believing, Healing

The Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics is developing future physicians who better understand the needs of the impoverished and underserved and reach out globally to serve them.

Students emerge from the Center’s academic, outreach and service-learning-based programs better prepared, more confident in their abilities and more compassionate toward patients.

Thanks to the generous support of private donors and grants from foundations to the School of Medicine and the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics, Health Science Center students are allowed to travel throughout South Texas and the world to help people in need of vital health care. Students participate in medical rotations, mobile health clinics and educational programs to help communities organize their health care resources.

Students report tremendous success and many indicate that more women in the regions they visit are taking on leadership roles on newly created health advisory committees in their communities.

Scholarships and grants from private donors, including the Paul Piper family, and from foundations and other sources, fund students’ airfare, travel and housing abroad. Various fundraisers initiated by students supplement funding.

Students witness their own lives transformed as they help change and improve the lives of the people they serve.

Summer Rotation in Africa

The Ethiopian woman shuffled slowly down the dirt road on her way to the market. Health Science Center second-year medical student Shannon Toews and fellow medical students followed nearby as they walked their routine one-mile path to Glenn C. Olsen Primary General Hospital in Yetebon, Ethiopia, where they were doing their volunteer work.

“We met many people on that road, but I’ll never forget her,” Toews said. “The dark, fine features that mark every Ethiopian with a unique beauty were overshadowed by the relentless swelling in her neck – a goiter the size of a large orange.” In underdeveloped parts of the world, goiter is caused by malnutrition and a lack of iodine in the diet.

“We knew exactly what we needed to do the moment we learned of her plight,” Toews said. Learning that the woman could not afford treatment for her goiter, the students pooled resources and paid out of their own pockets for her to have the goiter surgically removed. Toews, whose blood type matched the woman’s, also donated a unit of blood in preparation for the woman’s surgery.

“This was the first time we learned how to draw blood,” Toews said. “We practiced on one another. I learned new skills and I felt honored to be able to make such a personal investment in this woman’s health care. There was something undeniably personal about donating my own blood to her, and it was a privilege to be able to see her through the surgical process.”

(Left to right) Second-year medical students Christine Edwards, Shannon Toews, Adria Savino, Candace Hobson, Kayla McGloin and Kiley Johnson stop for a photo in Yetebon, Ethiopia, where they did volunteer work.

Toews was in Ethiopia during the summer of 2007 as part of the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics’ international medicine elective program. This was the first year the Center awarded scholarships for students to travel and work in Ethiopia. Ruth Berggren, M.D., associate professor and director of the Center, said she plans to make this trip an annual option for medical students at the Health Science Center.

Ethiopia, located in Eastern Africa, is one of the continent’s most populated nations and among the poorest in the world. Diseases not commonly found in the United States are more widespread in Ethiopia because of a number of factors, including lack of health care resources, poverty, poor sanitation and malnutrition. According to the World Health Organization, adequate medical care is limited in Ethiopia because fewer than three physicians are available per 100,000 citizens.

“I believe that the need is the call,” Toews said. “That is why I chose medicine as my career. I’ve always been interested in helping others, especially those who cannot help themselves. This is my passion. It’s about being human. I’m grateful the Health Science Center is allowing me the opportunity to fulfill my calling, share my experiences and help those who need it the most. ”

  • Seventeen students have traveled to Ethiopia since the trip was initiated in 2007. Their airfare, travel and housing have been funded by generous private donors.


International Medicine Elective in India

Paul Gravel and Rachel Hassan, both fourth-year Health Science Center medical students, traveled to Vellore, India, in January 2008 with four other students, where they participated in medical rotations at Christian Medical College (CMC) and in community health activities in some of the most rural areas of Vellore. One of the experiences they said impacted them the most was the time they spent at the CMC New Life Centre that focuses on the rehabilitation of patients with leprosy.

School of Medicine graduate Illeana Silva examines the spleen of a young AIDS patient at one of Christian Medical College’s rural clinics in Vellore, India.

School of Medicine graduate Illeana Silva examines the spleen of a young AIDS patient at one of Christian Medical College’s rural clinics in Vellore, India.

“Most of the leprosy patients we saw did not have any sensation in their extremities,” Gravel said. “We saw many amputees and patients with severe deformities. It was somewhat similar to the neuropathy we see in diabetics in the U.S., but to a much larger degree.” According to the World Health Organization, if left untreated, leprosy can cause nerve damage, leading to muscle weakness and atrophy, and permanent disabilities in the limbs and eyes. In nine countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, leprosy is still considered a public health problem. These countries account for about 75 percent of the global leprosy burden. Gravel said he was impressed with the leprosy research conducted at CMC. “Clinical trials, drug-resistance studies and vaccine-tolerance analysis are just some of the outstanding leprosy research programs conducted at CMC,” he said.

“We are fortunate to be exposed to different cultures and different people with different circumstances,” Hassan added. “The faces I saw in India will remain with me and encourage me forever. I know there is a lot we can do to make life better for people no matter where they live or what their situations may be, and that is my goal.”

  • Fifty students to date have received the Paul Brand International Medicine Scholarship to volunteer in India. The scholarship, funded by generous private donors, is named for the late Paul Brand, M.D., world-renowned orthopaedic surgeon who conducted pioneering reconstructive surgery on leprosy patients in India.


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