February 21, 2012
Ashley Pitlyk

Medicine with a Mission

SLU medical residents share their experiences of mission trips abroad

Annotto Bay Hospital

The pediatric ward of Annotto Bay Hospital in St. Mary Jamaica, was one of the sites Amanda Parsley, D.O., served during her medicine abroad rotation. For more photos of Parsley's trip visit the SLU Health News Facebook photo album.  

ST. LOUIS - In the last year, seven pediatric and pediatric/internal medicine residents embarked on a one-month medical mission in a developing country, thanks to the department of pediatrics and the Dr. Philip A. Riley, Jr., and Mrs. Joane Riley Endowed Medicine Abroad Program.

According to Bob Wilmott, M.D., chair of the department of pediatrics at Saint Louis University, the annual program provides residents with an unparalleled opportunity to experience another culture and learn about practicing medicine.

Now that they've returned from their mission trips, two of this year's medicine abroad scholars, Christelle Ilboudo, M.D., who served in Burkina Faso, and Amanda Parsley, D.O., who served in Jamaica, share their experiences of the program and how it affected their lives.

What was the highlight of your trip?

Ilboudo: My trip to Burkina Faso was at an orphanage in a small town called Yako. The highlight of my trip was on my last day at the orphanage. There was a toddler named Astrid who avoided me the entire time I was living there. On my last day, I was saying goodbye to the children and to my great surprise, Astrid came to me - arms wide open. I picked her up and could not help becoming emotional as I had finally bonded with this little girl just a few hours prior to my departure. It was a priceless moment.

Parsley: There was a young teenager who had been admitted to the hospital for three days to observe for possible seizures. After a long conversation with the patient and his mother, I determined that the patient had likely not had a seizure but rather a dystonic reaction (a reaction that causes abnormal muscle contractions) to an anti-nausea medication he had received the previous week. I had the patient follow up the next week in the clinic, and he brought the medication with him, which is known to cause this type of reaction. I was very glad that I was able to help save this child from many months to even years of taking an anti-seizure medication that he didn't need.

What was the most difficult or emotionally impacting part of your medicine abroad rotation?

Ilboudo: The most difficult part of my experience was adapting to the cultural expectations of work. The concept of siesta, which is a three-hour break during the day, was one I had to get used to. The language barrier also made it hard to express my viewpoints. Often, as I asked the nurses questions on the prescribing practices of this French-speaking country, my inquiries were interpreted as ignorance. The nursing staff and physician dynamics were quite different from what I was used to.

Parsley: I felt that it was very difficult to transition on a daily basis between two economic extremes. I was staying on a resort that was much nicer than most places I have ever been on vacation. I was also being driven daily to remote hospitals with very limited resources, both human and financial resources, to care for people with very little money. Many of the illnesses I saw such as asthma, tinea, scabies and intestinal parasites, were secondary to poor living conditions without clean running water and indoor plumbing. I am sure it is difficult for anyone who participates in an international rotation to transition from one lifestyle to another. However, I found that it was extremely difficult for me because I made this transition not just at the beginning and end of the rotation but daily.

How has this experience changed you or your plans for the future? How will it make you a better doctor?

Ilboudo: This experience only reinforces my desire to focus some of my career on international medicine and working in Third World countries. I learned that I have a long way to go. Immersing myself in the culture of the places I travel to will be crucial to the success of my future endeavors.

Parsley: I truly enjoyed the experience and think that I will participate in medicine abroad again. I hope to find a situation that I can return to on a regular basis and become more familiar with that area's medical resources and needs. I know it has made me appreciate the available medical resources that we have in this country. I also hope the experience has helped me come up with solutions when resources are not available to me. I would like to help bring more portable and widely available technology to areas of the world that would greatly benefit from it.

Higher purpose. Greater good.
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