Medical students gain insight through global health experience in Malawi

Drom left: Boonshoft School of Medicine students Hannah Polster, Jeff Bierly and Sarah McGraw volunteered this summer in a rural community in northern Malawi in southeast Africa as part of a global health experience.

Three Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine students spent three weeks this summer in Malawi as part of a global health experience.

Jeff Bierly, Sarah McGraw and Hannah Polster volunteered in a local health center in Chilumba, a rural community in the Karonga district of northern Malawi in southeast Africa. The students, who are now in their second year of medical school, helped clinicians with patients, checked on new mothers and worked in nutrition clinics, where they measured and documented children’s growth and immunizations. They also volunteered at three outreach clinics where children were weighed, immunizations were administered and education was provided on various topics including prenatal care, nutrition and HIV/AIDS.

They volunteered with Determined to Develop, a nonprofit organization that works side-by-side with community members in Chilumba, Malawi, to identify and address needs and provide assistance in the overall development of the region. The medical students gained firsthand experience with an African culture and learned how health care and population health initiatives are implemented in a highly under-resourced country with a significant burden of disease, high maternal and infant mortality rates and chronic poverty.

Polster described the experience as incredible. She learned Tumbuka, the local language, and gained insight into medical conditions very rarely seen in the United States.

“With open arms, I was welcomed into a country vastly different from my own and experienced a new and exciting culture,” said Polster, who is from Columbus. “I built friendships with other Americans, Brits and Malawians and woke up to sunrises that I never dreamed could be so beautiful. My summer in Malawi was unforgettable, and I am thankful for the new perspectives I can apply to my view of the world and my medical training.”

While the people of Malawi are very welcoming, friendly and helpful, the medical students also noticed that nutrition standards in Malawi differ from those in the United States. Bierly recalled seeing a child who would be classified as malnourished in the United States. But the child weighed into the 55th percentile of children his age living in Malawi.

“The nutritional standard was very different in Malawi compared to the United States. I saw a child who appeared malnourished, but once weighed, he fell slightly above average,” said Bierly, who is from Centerville. “That really showed me how serious malnutrition is in Malawi and subsequently the obesity epidemic in the United States.”

The medical students also observed cases of malaria, including one with an unconscious, convulsing child. The life-threatening disease is transmitted through an infected mosquito and is a constant threat to the people of Malawi. Those infected with malaria experience fever, chills and flu-like symptoms. If it is not treated, severe complications can develop and result in death.

“Due to the prevalence of malaria, the clinics can diagnose and treat it with efficiency and ease. If a patient comes in with nondescript symptoms, such as headache or cough, and the malaria test is positive, the clinician simply provides medication and the patient leaves,” Bierly said. “However, the clinician admits those with more serious complications of malaria to the clinic for IV drug administration. These cases reminded me how dangerous malaria can be.”

Jeff Bierly, left, and Sarah McGraw mix soy flour and oil to pass out to families who needed food at the nutrition clinic where they volunteered in Malawi as part of their global health experience.

While they were welcomed by the Malawians and learned about the culture, they also noticed the poverty. People made their own bricks for their houses, which only had concrete floors. Most homes had thatched roofs, but those with more money had tin roofs.

“Malawi is poverty stricken, which made me appreciate everything I have here in the United States,” said McGraw, who is from Canfield, Ohio. “Someone could be the richest person in Malawi, but they would still be poor by our standards. However, Malawi is known as the warm heart of Africa, and the people welcomed us with open arms.”

McGraw and the others hope to return and help after they earn their medical degrees. “I would like to go back with more knowledge, so that I can be of more help,” she said.

Bierly also wants to return in the future.

“I wanted to see if I would be interested in doing something like Doctors Without Borders after I earn my medical degree and complete my residency training,” he said. “By going to Malawi and learning about the challenges they face, I realized I want to do something like that in the future.”

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