We know that short term medical trips can influence the lives of participants, the communities that receive them, and the organizations that undertake them. In her first blog post with our organization, Dr. Christine Thorne describes her personal experience with short term medical trips and the way it shaped her career choices and life.
Short-term international medical work has shaped the course of my career and my outlook on life. When I was 16, my parents decided to forgo their planned second honeymoon and instead decided, through religious conviction and prayer, that they needed to do some international medical mission work.
With my father, a physician, signed up to work a 3-week stint at a hospital on the north coast of Haiti, my family got on a plane and went to work. It was the late nineties and was a somewhat treacherous time to travel to Haiti. Indeed, an attempted coup happened the weeks we were there. Most people thought my parents were insane. Traveling to a country on the State Department’s do-not-fly list does not top the parenting list of “must-do”, especially with four children aged 10-16.
However, that trip proved invaluable to the course of my life. Our work was at a rural hospital supported by the WHO. My father filled in for a full-time physician who was on leave for a few weeks. He was nearly the only doctor in the area. The surgical suite was under remodeling, the clinic had chickens roosting in it, and the lines of waiting patients exceeded what one imagined they could see in a day. Out of desperation, my father recruited me as a medical assistant.
For the first time in my life I saw someone born; I saw someone die; I saw what humanity was capable of – both for the good and the bad. Mothers came in with babies partially delivered. A neonate developed tetanus from a non-sterile pair of scissors used to cut the umbilical cord. Three different incidents brought in men with extensive machete wounds from fights, resulting in the equivalent of plastic surgery under local anesthetic in a barely air-conditioned clinic room with a broken blood pressure cuff as a tourniquet. We nearly ran out of sterile gloves.
By the end of my three weeks of working in the clinic and at the TB pediatric home next door, I had found a career. I was able to see what most in the US never do – what life is like without medicine and basic public health functions. I knew that medicine was important work, work I could stomach, work I was good at, work that was essential to humanity. I returned home to my senior year of high school and got a job at a pharmacy. From there, I went to college, knowing from the outset that I would complete my pre-med coursework and apply to medical school.
To this day, as a practicing physician, wife and mother, Haiti comes back to me. I never scoff at giving my children immunizations, because I have seen life in a place where people are not as lucky to have access to such simple and vital methods of prevention. When I get clean water out of my faucet, I gladly drink it. When my daughter was born and I had a rare complication during delivery, I commented to the obstetrician that it was a good thing we weren’t in Haiti. I knew full well that in Haiti my daughter would have died and that I might not have been far behind her. My physician thought it a very strange comment in the moment, but I did not. I knew how blessed I was to have medical care, and I work now to bring care to those who are not as fortunate.
Dr. Christine Thorne is a resident physician in California.