Alison Ellsworth was finishing her final semester at the Medical College of Wisconsin before becoming a resident when she went to Nepal for a month to see its health care system.
Ellsworth said she had a lot of “a-ha” moments.
“I began to really understand the depth of problems that were going on,” she said. “Trying to understand why this one family had taken so long to bring in their very ill child to the hospital. And they brought this bag of medication that cost the equivalent of US$40, which is a lot of money over in Nepal, why didn’t they come sooner?”
Then she learned the reason for the delay.
“It was because they had to physically walk to the hospital,” Ellsworth said. “It was a four hour walk for them and they had to carry the child. It’s an all day event for them.”
These types of stories are the reasons, Ellsworth said, that she decided to become a doctor.
“I was interested to see how health care systems work outside of our country,” she said. “I want to work with underserved populations and one category of that is global health in impoverished countries.”
Fellow MCW student Bryan Johnston traveled with Ellsworth to Nepal from Jan. 11 to Feb. 5 of this year. The two were recipients of the Ewens WIcare Program Scholarship which, since 2008, has been sending medical students to other countries so they can observe different medical practices.
In Nepal, Johnston said, the health care community outreach where doctors go to those in need, done out of necessity because of travel limitations, could have a real impact if adapted in the United States.
Because patients have to travel long distances for medical care, Johnston and Ellsworth saw a temendous amount of outreach on the part of health care professionals to try to get into the communities that have difficulty traveling.
“It’s something that I think that the U.S. and the western health care system can learn from,” Johnston said. “It’s a more sustainable model for distributing health education and health care to communities.”
Johnston, who traveled to Uganda and Honduras to observe their health care systems, believes those experiences help improve the quality of medical education.
“It’s really interesting to see how different cultures approach health care and health in general,” he said. “I think there are great opportunities to bridge gaps and make connections, and make medicine work better.”
Ellsworth and Johnston shared their experiences with Catholic East Elementary School students on Monday, April 18. Earlier this year, Catholic East students helped raise money to aid victims in the 2015 Nepal earthquake — a story reported in the Jan. 28 issue of the Catholic Herald.
Although the medical students weren’t allowed to participate in examinations or procedures, they learned about illnesses rarely seen in the U.S. such as multi-drug resistant tuberculosis.
Ellsworth said she appreciated the time doctors and physicians took teaching them their practices, even if their presence interrupted the flow of care.
“We were coming in and intruding in how they delivered health care but they took it as an opportunity to educate us about what they did,” Ellsworth said. “It’s more exposure to medical diseases that we really haven’t seen in our medical education.”
Not only did the two see diseases they’d only known in textbooks, they got an up-close view of how physicians work when the safety net of other nearby medical colleagues is not present.
“One problem is they’re understaffed,” Ellsworth said. “They don’t have enough physicians to oversee every minute detail like we have here.”
As they told the crowded Catholic East gymnasium about their experiences, the young students asked questions about the Nepalese culture and what they did for fun.
Sitting among the students was Sue Ewens, who was responsible for funding the MCW scholarship.
Ewens said she helped start a charitable trust to sponsor trips for 10 MCW students to different parts of the world in 2008.
“It enriches them, it changes their lives,” Ewens said. “They learn so much and appreciate much more what they have here.”
Ewens said before this there weren’t many options for medical students to take a trip abroad.
“When we started, that was it. No one was doing anything (like this),” Ewens said. “It’s grown. This just brings me joy. It’s amazing what they do.”
For 18 years, Ewens was a member of the Sinsinawa Dominicans. Although she left the order, after attending a Mass celebrated by Fr. Tim Kitzke, she began to get back in touch with her faith.
“He’s brought me back,” Ewens said of Fr. Kitzke.
Ewens said she’s working to help different Catholic schools in the archdiocese.
“I’m very, very focused now on what I’m doing with money and Messmer schools,” Ewens said, adding she helped provide the funding to finish the construction of the Catholic East campus which was why she wanted Ellsworth and Johnston to give their presentation to those students. “I’m part of this, Catholic East … and I wanted them to come here.”
In January, Ewens saw the Catholic Herald story about students raising money for earthquake victims.
“I read that in the Catholic Herald, that they had raised money for Nepal,” she said. “I thought it was a no brainer. They have to make a presentation, make it over here,” she said of the requirement that recipients of the Ewens WIcare Program Scholarship share their experiences in a group setting.
Overall, Ewens said the students come back with a strong sense to “heal wherever it’s needed” and that’s the goal of the scholarship.
“Reach out to the poor and needy,” she said. “That’s what doctors are supposed to be doing.”
Ryan Krienke, principal of Catholic East, said the school was proud of the students for starting the fundraiser.
“As a principal at a Catholic school it was really fun to see their energy around that,” he said. “And then to have one of our big donors and supporters, Sue Ewens, call after she saw the article that originally ran in the Catholic Herald and say, ‘Hey, I also happen to fund, in addition to Catholic East, these doctors to go to Nepal. I bet I can get them to speak to your kids.’ It kind of for me completed the whole loop of the process.”
Krienke said students appreciated hearing the stories from Ellsworth and Johnston, and it gave them a greater sense of life across the world.
“Many of our students don’t have a lot of experience outside of Milwaukee,” Krienke said. “It gives the kids a perspective that our community is more global than just Milwaukee…. It gives them also a picture that there are places where poverty looks even different and more drastic. It helps them understand the priviledge they do have.”
What started in the classroom — the students learning about an earthquake in Nepal, led to a significant fundraiser which led to the students hearing first hand accounts of health care for the Nepalese people.
“We need to figure out ways of doing more of that,” Krienke said. “And then finding ways to connect with other people in the community who can bring personal experiences to what they’re learning. It really sets the bar for what our classroom needs to look like.”