How Shadowing Abroad CHANGED my view of Global Health

When I was nineteen years old I left the United States for the first time to observe medicine in a foreign country. I did in fact fundraise for a year prior to going on the trip and if anyone has any questions on how to go about doing this- please feel free to contact me! I know some people are not comfortable with this; however, when you have a goal it doesn’t hurt getting some advice and help along the way, especially when it is for a good cause!

Getting on that plane solo was the first step to me becoming a confident, young woman and one of the most important factors of me deciding to become a future physician.

I boarded a plane that was taking me from NYC to China, had a three hour layover, then boarded a plane that flew from China to Bangkok, Thailand, with a seven hour layover and then flew from Bangkok up north to Phitsanulok, Thailand. It was there that I would be observing the Pediatric Ward through a program stationed in the United Kingdom called “Gap Medics.”

While on the Pediatric Ward I was presented with learning so many things in different parts of the hospital. We observed: the Pediatric ICU in which we saw a patient with Kawasaki Disease (mainly common in Asian children under the age of five), we saw a patient with amnesia due to lead poisoning in the water, My favorite part was a Breastfeeding Clinic that allowed patients to come in and become educated on how to provide nutrients for their children (if they were struggling for a variety of reasons with holding their baby while they were being fed, they weren’t latching etc.) All of these patients didn’t speak english but the relief that was on their faces once everything was explained was evident that I had no problem understanding how empowered they became being able to provide for their child. That needed zero translation.

Another opportunity I was able to observe was the Well Baby Clinic. Various stations were set up in which the child’s height, weight, reflexes, reaction times were measured. There was also a vaccination station so the children were all kept up to date with their shots. These clinics were held twice a month and allowed parents a set spot to receive care for their children and most of them would not regularly make appointments due to a busy work schedule or not being able to find time.

We were broken up based on specialty! Gap Medics issues their own scrubs as the only scrubs in the hospital are those in surgery. On the wards, the doctors wear street clothes (sans gloves) and the nurses wear a uniform similar to those worn in the World War I era of nursing- they looked fabulous! I actually asked a Thai Nurse why she became one and she joked and said she really liked the uniform!

While sipping my morning coffee, I realized it tasted sweeter than one I would have at home. The rest of that day consisted of me observing an abundance of babies being in the NICU due to their premature births. I was told it was because their mothers having diabetes and hypertension, two of the number one diseases predominant in Thailand. I realized that the Thai culture uses products with a high sugar content; whereas, this was abnormal to my lifestyle, it was a part of their everyday, morning cup of coffee. Through this I realized, they may not know or may not be educated in the effect their everyday cup of coffee with condensed milk is having on their babies development and gestational period. It changed my perspective on just how deep a culture runs. I learned that every culture is different and that these slight differences can have major effects on those that practice it.

I am writing this article for a reason. The PROs of traveling abroad to Shadow: I got to observe healthcare not on US soil. They do NOT wear gloves, nor scrubs. They’re not sterile. All the kids play in one room together. I gained confidence far beyond my wildest dreams. I made friends around the world, learned a new language and manage to learn so much about myself 8,000 miles from my home. A lot of schools want you to elaborate about a time where you learned something from someone who’s background is different than yours. THIS IS IT PEOPLE.

The CONs: this is expensive. I will not lie about that one at all. So if you have the means, do not hesitate to go. (Like I said earlier, contact me on fundraising! When there is a will, there is a way!) Also, this takes time. It takes away from summer classes! I know some schools do medical mission trips- which generally are different from what I did shadowing abroad. There are clubs for this, so check with your pre-health advisor for more information about what your school does regarding healthcare abroad!

The most important point about this article is: I OBSERVED medicine there. I didn’t “save” anyone. I didn’t put on a cape and go help the less fortunate people of Thailand. No, no, no. If anything, they taught me! If there comes a day when I can return the favor and teach them what I can as a physician I will gladly take it. However, I want everyone to realize the distinction: just because you go to a foreign country that does not practice medicine the same way you do, doesn’t make them less than you. You’re forgetting an important part: they have a completely different way of governing/way of life/culture than you do.

A friend of mine made an amazing blog post summing this up beautifully (Hi, Mary Ella!) She’s a HUGE Global Health advocate, starting her surgical residency this July and has the best advice so check out her article on “Neighbors Not Saviors” here:

If you have the opportunity to go abroad, you better take it! Then message me all about it because I would LOVE to hear it! I cannot wait for my next trip abroad. Also, none of this is an ad for Gap Medics. This is purely my opinion of a company who does a fantastic job of bridging the gap of learning and education of future physicians in foreign healthcare policies that they would not otherwise experience at home.

References: https://www.gapmedics.com/ (For those of you interested in more information on the program I used! They unfortunately are no longer having individuals in Thailand just group trips for that location and Tanzania (my friend from college did this one for almost a month) ; however, they do have individual programs in: Croatia and Dominican Republic. They also schedule trips for things to do while traveling there when you have free time/are not in the hospital. So definitely check it out!

~Jess

A temple we were able to see after our first shift in the hospital. In Thailand, it is custom to enter a temple barefoot (shoes are known to be not sacred) as well as to keep your legs (that’s why I have a brown skirt on in the first picture!) and shoulders covered.
Disclaimer: consent was obtained from the parents to post this picture. This little one, known as “Twin A” (in Thailand they do not name their babies right away!) is just a couple of hours old and is part of fraternal twins! Her other twin was in the NICU and both babies went home happy and healthy by the end of the week!

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