As I was packing for my first international medical trip to Guyana, South America, my wandering mind conjured image after image of third-world medicine based on popular notions and dramatic stories I have heard over the years. I imagined a row of soiled cots where emaciated children without IV access spent their final hours. I pictured a sweltering tent full of tuberculosis patients collectively coughing up blood; or a bathroom-sized emergency department packed with fever-stricken, jaundiced, indigenous peoples dying of AIDS, malaria, and other ailments while overwhelmed healthcare workers looked the other way out of emotional self-preservation because they had nothing to offer. As described to me by some physicians who had been there in recent years, some of these were features specific to the hospital I was heading to in the capital city of Georgetown.
I am delighted to tell you how antiquated and cynical my preconceived notions had been.
On my very first day in the Accident and Emergency Department (A&E), my first patient did not have AIDS or malaria or tuberculosis; he had hypertension and diabetes, and came in for chest pain. I have seen this exact patient many times in my own tertiary hospital in the States! I caught myself thinking perhaps my view of international medicine was a bit narrow. But, I thought, we probably wouldn’t have the equipment to diagnose him, and even then certainly we would have no treatment to offer. Wrong again. A junior resident from the brand new graduate training program in Emergency Medicine appeared beside me and handed me an EKG. “Inferior wall MI (heart attack). He’s gotten fluids, aspirin, oxygen, and morphine. Holding the nitro. We’re waiting for his portable chest x-ray so we can start heparin, and the admitting team is on their way down to evaluate him for streptokinase (clot busting medication).” Incredible! His care was nearly equivalent to that in thousands of small hospitals across the United States.
My very next patient was brought in on a gurney in full cardiac arrest for unknown reasons. Far from looking the other way, a team of three physicians including myself and four nurses started CPR, provided oxygen and ventilation, established two IVs, started fluids, checked his blood sugar, attached a cardiac monitor, gave epinephrine and sodium bicarbonate, and attempted defibrillation before finally pronouncing him dead. This was fully consistent with my own training.
Time and time again, I was surprised and humbled by the world-class care being delivered in this developing nation, from the availability of a neurosurgery consultation for head trauma, to blood cultures and antibiotics for septic shock, to the text book intubation of a comatose stroke patient (there was an available ventilator in the ICU), to the use of an “asthma room” for wheezing asthmatics receiving inhaled medications, oral steroids, and intravenous magnesium just like we would do back home. To be sure, this is not always the case, and there are countless places in the developing world with no medical resources at all, but the quality of care delivered in this public hospital in one of the poorest western nations is remarkable. I believe this is a great example of the success and power of international health efforts.
In Georgetown, an American team of Emergency Medicine residents and faculty, of which I am a member, are staying in a compound called Project Dawn, an international collaboration which houses teams of physicians and healthcare workers from the United States, Canada, Scotland, India, and many other countries around the world year-round. Like ours, these teams spend intensive time in the city helping provide direct patient care, teaching at the bedside, and setting up infrastructure and training programs. This, combined with the ambition of the local physicians who have trained in Guyana as well as places like Canada, the US, Cuba, India, and Europe, is a recipe for excellent patient care.
I am particularly proud of my home institution, Vanderbilt University and its Department of Emergency Medicine, and our involvement here. Within the last few years, we have had the privilege of assisting the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation create a self-sufficient Emergency Medicine residency program to train new classes of emergency physicians who are specially trained in resuscitation and acute care of a wide variety of problems, from cardiac arrest to broken bones to childbirth to infections and trauma. As we’ve seen in the US, this training benefits patients by relieving the surgeons and family practitioners who typically cover emergency rooms but may not be well versed in the care of medical problems outside their usual scope of practice.
As my American colleagues and I led a didactic conference last week with the new residents, I witnessed with awe the geographical boundaries and disparities of health care dissolve. Together we interpreted the mysterious subtleties of EKGs, discussed strategies for resuscitation of shock, airway management, differentiating types of bleeds around the brain on CT scan. The local residents brought their own real-life cases for a conference, calling on each other to think though work-up and treatment of various life-threatening conditions. These residents would be as at home in our conference room in Tennessee as we are in theirs.
The far-reaching positive impact of international health efforts are all around me, and it is truly remarkable. Of course, none of this is possible without the enthusiasm and dedication of a well-educated and well-trained Guyanese health care force. I feel very honored to be part of something so inspirational, and I urge readers to continue to support international health efforts, as the gains from these investments are tangible and quite amazing to behold.