It was the last case of the day: an overweight woman requiring an open abdominal cholecystectomy — gall bladder removal. Four hours later, I walked out of the medical clinic in Chocola, Guatemala to return for dinner. A man approached me, grabbed my hands and repeated the words “thank you” several times. His wife was the woman we had just moved to post-op. Little did he know, I was merely a freshman in college and had only shadowed the surgeon. Regardless of whether I deserved the gratitude or not, it was that moment that made me realize why I was in Guatemala.
I initially decided to participate in the medical mission trip to Guatemala to determine if I actually wanted to be a doctor and, to be honest, because I knew it would look good on my medical school application. What I learned, however, in that first short week in Guatemala far surpassed anything I had learned from my previous classes at the University of Michigan.
Immersed in the culture of traditional Mayans, I realized that at its core, medicine is the same regardless of where you are in the world. At the same time, it’s different with respect to individual culture and the way in which medical conditions are perceived. Even with the diversity that Ann Arbor offers, this was not something I could have learned while sitting in the Natural Science Building listening to lectures about neurons.
As a pre-health student, I was extremely lucky to have the chance to travel to Guatemala and experience a culture other than my own. Many students, though, do not have this opportunity between jobs and summer classes. However, a week was not nearly enough. I quickly recognized the potential for what could have been learned if I had a few more weeks or even months.
Pre-health students are set in a rigid schedule, which often requires taking more than one science class each semester. If you want to graduate in four years, the opportunity to study abroad for longer than a week is largely unavailable because of the demanding process of applying to medical school. Though the majority of pre-health students are part of LSA, and thus included in the respective standards of a liberal arts education, the University does not provide a sufficient number of programs for pre-health students to study abroad.
Many Spanish concentrators who have studied abroad in Spain were able to take classes with a University professor overseas and obtain grades for Spanish credit. A similar program with science professors from the University could be implemented in countries around the world to allow pre-health students to fulfill the necessary requirements for admission to medical schools while also experiencing the culture of another country.
The Association of American Medical Colleges has realized this necessary transition in the preparation of medical students. While a solid background in the natural sciences will always be required for success in medical school, a greater emphasis is now being placed on behavioral and social sciences, as exemplified in the revised Medical Colleges Admission Test for 2015.
While generalized studies in behavior and social sciences are offered through the humanities and social science distribution in LSA, pre-health students are limited in what they can learn, especially when it comes to experiencing another culture. By experiencing the medical field in a culture other than your own, you are not only given the opportunity to learn about another culture, but to appreciate yours as well.
The man who repeated the words “thank you” to me later explained that he did not know how much longer his wife would have been able to care for their children without this surgery. He claimed that I had helped to give his wife a second chance at life. These are the moments that more students should be able to experience with the help of the University. As University of Michigan students, we are supposed to graduate as well-rounded individuals. However, the University does not currently offer long-term pre-health programs suited to the needs of developing well-rounded students. What we need to be successful in our careers cannot be learned entirely within the confines of white classroom walls.
Kylie Steenbergh is a LSA junior.