COM students trek to Uganda for medical mission

June 25, 2010

COM student with Ugandan woman

While most students were spending their Spring Break at the beach or lounging poolside, eight Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine first- and second-year students from College Station and Temple traveled more than 8,000 miles to Kampala, Uganda, for a medical mission at the New Hope Orphanage in March 2010 as part of the Christian Medical Association (CMA).

After nine months of planning, the students, Dr. Eric Wilke ’95 and Dr. Thomas Peterson, CMA advisor, landed in Uganda with 11 other volunteers including their own family members and four Texas A&M University undergraduates. Although he has been traveling on medical missions to the New Hope Orphanage for five years, Dr. Wilke has been devoted to medical volunteer efforts for many years. As a student, he co-founded Martha’s Clinic, the student-run free clinic for the homeless and indigent population of Temple and surrounding Bell County, in 1994.

From the streets of Bell County to the Ugandan countryside, a desire to serve the community, both locally and globally, inspires Dr. Wilke to return to Uganda – this time with the students.

The roadways in southern Uganda, mostly rutted red dirt paths, were so inhospitable that the six-mile bus ride from the capital city of Kampala to the orphanage took about an hour. Upon their arrival, the road leading to the orphanage was lined with more than 800 students and teachers welcoming them with waves and songs.

After unloading bins filled with donations of clothes, food, school supplies and medicines, the team set up shop in two large, open-air tents. Four Texas A&M undergrads began to triage the patients and distribute medications, in essence forming a makeshift pharmacy. Then, with the help of translators, the medical students took patient histories and diagnosed and treated all kinds of ailments. For four-and-a-half days, they treated more than 1,000 patients for everything from broken bones to hypertension, dehydration and even tropical diseases like malaria.

Ugandan children with medical student

Ugandan children smile and pose with medical student Jessica Solis.

“The day we got there, a young boy was carried into the tent exhibiting cerebral malaria so advanced that he was experiencing fever-induced seizures,” said first-year medical student Colin Fuller. “He had to be transported to the hospital in Kampala immediately. Right there from Day One, we realized how important this mission was.”

The patients continued to pour into the tent clinic. One day, the team treated ear infections, cleaned and bandaged simple wounds, set broken arms, drained abscesses, treated a few hernias, and performed a lumbar puncture. The next day found them setting a line to push fluids directly into the bone marrow cavity of a severely dehydrated patient.

“As future physicians, it’s important for us to have a more global outlook on medicine,” said first-year medical student Benjamin Brown. “As a first-year student, I got to see live patients, and I was so fulfilled by their appreciation for even the most basic medical care.”

One elderly woman – age 73 in a country with an average life expectancy of 52 years – complained of steadily increasing deafness. By simply irrigating her ears, one student was able to remove waxy buildup that had been exacerbated by constant exposure to the area’s red dirt. Visibly moved by the difference a simple procedure made, the woman exclaimed, “Thank you so much! Can I hug you?”

When they weren’t treating patients, the first-year students attended rounds with the doctors at the Mengo Hospital in Kampala, the oldest hospital in Uganda. Second-year students spent time in an HIV clinic.

Uganda child sits on medical student

A Ugandan child smiles on the shoulder of medical student Cory Russell.

“HIV treatment is free in Uganda,” said second-year medical student Valerie Schwind. When asked why the treatment was free when basic medical care was hard to come by, she replied, “Because HIV is so widespread in Uganda. It’s everywhere.”

“Public health initiatives and education are so obviously necessary,” added first-year student Benjamin Raber. “Without something as simple as garbage collection, the air becomes polluted, and the children play in trash.”

Through it all, every member of the team agrees they would return to Uganda for another mission. For now, they take comfort in the fact they were able to sponsor one child to live in the New Hope Orphanage and attend its classes. They donated $5,500 for food and operating costs and 250 nets to be placed over children’s beds to shield them from the mosquito-borne malaria parasite. Their efforts also raised $10,000 that was used to buy much-needed medicines at cost.

“Our students are experiencing medicine in a way that many doctors never experience,” Dr. Peterson said. “The educational and humanitarian experience on such a mission trip is unbeatable. Nothing in the classroom can duplicate it.”

“We got to see things that most doctors in the United States never see,” Raber said. “Yet one of my most memorable experiences was when one little boy grabbed my hand and then called to his friend. When his friend ran over, he let go of two of my fingers so that his friend could hold my hand, too.”

First-year medical student Jessica Solis echoed Raber’s sentiments.

“Their joy is incredible,” Solis said. “They have so little, but they are so appreciative for everything.”

— Marketing & Communications