One Tufts School of Medicine student has bookended his education with volunteer stints at a children's hospital in Cambodia.
Boston [03.01.10] Fourth-year Tufts School of Medicine student Jeff William recently returned from his second stint volunteering at Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap, Cambodia, an accredited teaching hospital for training Cambodian pediatricians. While still abroad, we talked with William via e-mail about his experience.
How did you become interested in studying medicine?
I have always loved science, especially biology. I found that studying science made me want to learn more, to explain why everything is the way it is. Medicine was a path that made sense to me from early on, but I wasn't sure why until I started to become involved in community service in high school and college. I relished the personal relationships I made through my involvement in the West Philadelphia community while a student at Penn. When I thought about where I wanted my career to take me, I knew it had to involve both science and a way to not just help people, but to also get to know them better. It seemed like medicine would be a great fit for me.
What drew you to Tufts?
My older brother was an undergraduate at Tufts and loved his time here. I have always had a fondness for Boston, but more importantly wanted to study medicine in an urban setting. On my interview day, I was struck by how welcoming everyone was and how happy the students seemed to be. In my fourth and final year as a med student, I can say with confidence that neither one of those things has changed and I love it here.
What prompted your interest in global health?
I have done a fair bit of traveling with the Long Island Youth Orchestra during my high school and college years. I saw true poverty for the first time on the streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka, and that image never left me. On my final trip with the orchestra, we made a stop in Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit the legendary Angkor Wat temples, but it wasn't the temples that impressed me most.
After playing a benefit concert for the Angkor Hospital for Children on this orchestra tour in 2007, we were offered a tour of the facility. The hospital was full to the brim with sick children. In the hallways, on every bench, outside and inside the building, mothers and fathers were holding their babies and small children, hoping to be seen that day. Some of them had traveled for almost a full day, spending a few months' salary just to get to the hospital. I asked one of the senior doctors if they accept medical students as volunteers, because as I walked around the hospital, I felt like I needed to go back when I could appreciate it more. They granted me the opportunity to return the following summer, between my first and second years of medical school.
What about your initial experience at Angkor Hospital for Children (AHC) made you want to go back?
As a first-year medical student, almost everything about my visit to AHC was new. It was my first time exposed to the workings of a hospital, the first time I had seen anyone on a ventilator, and the first I had seen anyone with many tropical diseases including dengue fever. Over my one-and-a-half-month stay in 2007, I started to become familiar with some of the more common ailments they see in the hospital, including pneumonia, congenital heart disease and malaria. I knew that my visit as a fourth-year would be drastically different in many ways, but would not be as unfamiliar as the first time. Instead, I could move past understanding the medical language and delve deeper into the management issues for the patients.
What is the most rewarding thing about your work there? The most challenging?
The most rewarding part of my day is watching this children's hospital in the middle of Cambodia run like any American hospital, despite its third-world surroundings. The hospital has been up and running for just over 10 years and continues to grow each and every year, treating patients from all over the country for free. I also had the opportunity to accompany a nurse on a home visit as part of the hospital's home care program, where they provide their current patients with follow-up care at their home, including nutritional assistance and water purification methods, so that the patients may thrive at home after they are discharged.
The most challenging part of my work is learning about all of the cases that we rarely see in the U.S. while trying to overcome a very difficult language barrier. While we are taught that the history is often the most important part of the patient interaction, taking a history even with an interpreter can be quite a challenge.
What are some of the differences between medicine here and there?
The most striking is the how much longer it takes for Khmer [Cambodian] children to get to the hospital. Their diseases have often progressed much further than we would likely see in the U.S. It can take weeks for a child to receive proper care, since they will often pursue traditional methods of medicine from the expert in their village before seeking medical care in a hospital.
How has the community received you?
With open arms. Both the staff and the parents of the patients have been so gracious and welcoming to me. The Khmer people are amazing, resilient and so friendly. It's hard not to fall in love with a place like this.
Interview by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications
Photos by Jodi Hilton for University Photography