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What I’ve Learned from International Medical Missions

From a young age, my parents taught me the importance of travel by taking my sister and I to unique destinations.  That passion has developed over time, and while I still love to visit new places for fun, I’ve learned that the most fulfilling experiences occur when I’m able to immerse myself in the culture and learn from the community I’m visiting.  In high school and college, I participated in a few mission trips, but never anything with a medical focus.  It wasn’t until the end of PA school that I was able to take my medical knowledge and skills and use them in a foreign country.  

Visiting the Dominican Republic, we set up clinics in small sugar cane communities called bateyes to provide screenings and basic medical care to the workers and their families.  This was my first time participating in a medical mission trip, but I learned so much and my desire to help began to grow.  After graduation, I began working in dermatology.  I had concerns that specializing may limit my ability to provide care internationally, but I’ve since learned that there are needs in every area.  I recently participated in a dermatology specific trip to Kenya where a group of dermatologists and PAs partnered with Baraka Hospital in the Maasai Mara to provide care to patients from all over.  

"Patients are the same no matter the location. They have the same conditions, the same concerns, and the same fears when it comes to health."

Before we arrived, the hospital advertised our arrival on the radio.  Each morning at the clinic, there would be lines of 20-30 patients ready to receive care.  While this wasn’t my first medical mission, for my 11 teammates it was, and I was the only one to bring a stethoscope.  Although I don’t use a stethoscope frequently in my day job as a dermatology PA, I knew that part of medical missions is being flexible, and there were likely patients who needed more than just dermatological care.  

That proved true when a 36 year old woman arrived.  She could barely walk from her abdominal pain.  It was quite obvious this was more involved than a skin condition.  After examination, taking history through a translator, and borrowing an ultrasound machine from the OB ward, we determined that the patient had an emergent obstruction, which would require emergency surgery.  We explained the severity of the situation, and later found out the patient was transferred to a larger hospital in Nigeria, and receives the care she needed.

"Having the opportunity to care for people who have so little in different countries is refreshing."

One of the main things I’ve learned from these trips is that patients are the same no matter the location.  They typically have the same conditions, the same concerns, and the same fears when it comes to health.  Whenever I’m able to see patients in a different setting, it helps to remind me that we are so lucky to have the resources we can access in the states.  Witnessing a 17-year-old give birth to her first baby with no anesthetic, only to request to leave 8 hours later because of the amount of work at home helps me to realize that our patients have it so good.  

I would love to say that my experiences abroad are solely for the benefit of the patients I’m able to serve, but that wouldn’t be completely true.  Many people comment that there is plenty of need in the States, which is accurate.  But having the opportunity to care for people who have so little in different countries is refreshing after the day-to-day tasks of caring for patients who can seek help elsewhere if desired.  The gratitude and pure joy of patients who traveled 6 hours just to find out there’s not much you can do for their condition with the resources available, but that it’s not malignant, is amazing.  

About the author:

Savanna Perry PA-C is a practicing dermotology physician assistant living and working in Augusta, GA. In her free time, Savanna enjoys exploring her town and traveling with her husband, who is currently an internal medicine resident. She is also the founder of The PA Platform, a popular website for Pre-PA and current PA students.