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BEAUTY IN GLOBAL HEALTH AND DIVERSITY


This month our Guest Blog comes to you from Dominique Vervoort, co-founder of InciSioN, the largest student-run Global Surgery network. Immediately prior to InciSioN’s very first Symposium from May 5-6, Dominique reflects on his introduction to global surgery and health care.





Photo: Dominique speaking at the Global Surgery Satellite Session at the CUGH2018

“Should I really be here?”. It’s a question that has crossed my mind not infrequently in the past. Sitting at the World Health Assembly, nervously talking in front of an audience about topics mapped and discovered by some of those in front of me, awkwardly shaking hands with leaders on the world stage, putting out statements on behalf of the future surgical workforce from around the world. Global Surgery and Global Health are led by not-so-recent graduates. “I’m 22. Should I really be here?”

 
First Steps into Medicine Abroad

Throughout my youth until today, my parents have remained a source of inspiration and gratefulness for the life I have, and a constant reminder of how precious time is.
 
Concurrently, growing up among my Ghanaian cousins who moved to Belgium when I was a kid, and hearing their stories from back home, I had grown a great interest in what was beyond our European comfort zones. 
 
After my first year of medical school, I spent a month with a host family on the outskirts of Cuzco, Peru, to work with a single doctor at a small clinic, doing outreaches to mountain communities not able to reach the already small facility at the foot of the mountain. 
 
The sheer experience of encountering the barriers in accessing care and the widespread health illiteracy further opened my eyes, yet it was the goodwill and warmth of the communities despite their setbacks that truly topped it all off – genuine warmth in contrast to the invisible Western doctor-patient wall. 
 
Treating and being treated as equals, as friends, laughing and sharing coca tea in between. 
 
At the end, knowing my interest in paediatrics, the doctor took me to the city’s hospital, where I could volunteer at the improvised paediatric oncology ward – a temporary cottage outside the hospital – for a few days. 
 
One of the six children there, Dora, had been isolated for five weeks and yet was smiling every single moment of the day – radiating when talking to her, radiating when she didn’t even know someone was around, radiating because her innocence and joy of living was stronger than any setback in life. I don’t know if she is still here today, but her smile is still with me.
 
Discovering Global Surgery 
 
In 2015 I moved to Dresden in the East of Germany, where I decided to finish my fourth year of medical school. 
 
A city severely bombed during World War Two, but completely rebuilt in the early 2000s, Dresden houses the TU Dresden. The rapidly expanding university is world-renowned for research and boasts a multicultural university hospital with no fewer than 73 nationalities, attracting students from all over the world – all the way from Syria to China. 
 
Studying in another language immersed in a multicultural setting in a blooming city moving away from pre-Berlin Wall times, and embracing the large refugee community, enlightened me with the power of unity, the power of peace over war. 
 
It was also here that, through sheer coincidence, I found out about Global Surgery, which proved to very likely be the most decisive moment in my life. I virtually met Isobel Marks, another founding member of InciSioN and a true Global Surgery student pioneer, who got me to connect my passions for global health and surgery. What followed have been the most enlightening and rewarding years of my young life.
 




Photo: One of the hospitals was close to the border with Togo, where a Togolese health worker hosted us, playing traditional music around the campfire until late at night. The occasional political friction between the countries could not overcome the common goal for the good. 

On the Road Again
 
Without going into the cliché that things don’t happen without a reason, a myriad of lucky events came about that brought me to Ghana to support a national surgical supply chain study. 
 
Working with the small, but strong general surgery team at Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital (KATH) in Kumasi, we made our way to district hospitals across the country, witnessing the stark disparities between KATH – a hospital with its own limitations, even without even a functioning X-ray or laparoscopy tower despite being the biggest hospital outside the capital – and hospitals a few dozen kilometres, yet hours of transport, away. 
 
Some were lacking electricity and running water, while others relied on supplies long beyond their expiry date, not knowing when they’d receive their next batch. 
 
While eye-opening in itself, working closely with the team and learning on all levels – from data collection and analysis, to modesty and work ethics – from pioneers in the region has given me more than any classroom or textbook can offer. 
 
Upon leaving, my supervisor said “I hope you stay on this path.” Shocked, but hopeful, I left my cousins’ country of birth full of motivation to do all I could to stay on my path.
 



Photos: Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

A Key Mentor

Clinically, I have had the honour of doing oncological head-neck surgical placements at the renowned Cambridge University Hospitals, under the supervision of one of the most humble, modest, and caring surgeons I have encountered.

Faced with referred cases from across the United Kingdom, often dealing with last resort situations, his grace in the operating room extended to his gift of making anyone feel as if the world stood still.

One day he talked to a young boy as if there were only the two of them in the room, but this was not the case. He was surrounded by nine other people – two colleagues, two residents, a nurse, a social worker, his scared parents, and myself because of the rarity of the case. 

No life-threatening, malignant situation or day-long operation, no shivering parents sitting by his side, no fear of having to let go of the toy car he firmly held in his left hand. The two of them, talking more calmly than if there was only peace and eternity in the world. Where there are places of monumental and natural beauty in the world you stand and stare in awe. This moment of professionalism and innate empathy was just that. Only three days later, the boy came through the procedure without complications.

 

 Photo: View of Tokyos skyline from wards of Keio University Hospital at night

Ah... Japan

And despite everything, it has been my months of internship in Tokyo, Japan that had the biggest personal impact on me. Four months in the world’s biggest metropolitan area, working at a continental referral hospital among brilliant minds from all over Japan not bothered to schedule hour-long one-on-one teachings, showed me a part of the world I didn’t expect to really exist.

Being run after for 500 meters to return a single yen (less than half a penny) I dropped, excessively bowed to wherever you go (and doing the same myself when I came back!), sincere gratitude and smiles for the smallest gestures; Japan knows how to welcome people with open arms.

The flip side of the Japanese coin –excessive working hours and double jobs even for many a doctor- enlightened me with the fact that you don’t get anywhere in this world without working hard. However, unlike many office workers in the unfortunate monotonic vicious cycles that this society has created, hard work may get you moving, it is the vision and goal in mind that bring you to the right destination.

The world is full of gems. With loosening borders and circular migration, we are transitioning into a multicultural world embedded in traditional scenes, as countries hold on to their long-engrained traditions.

I have spent time with people from all backgrounds all over the world, but as incredible as it is to meet new people, so equally sad is it to say goodbye every time. And yet, every time, I feel happy after, knowing the people I have met leave me as a better person than I was before. I built fluent conversational skills in eight languages, to get a better understanding of cultures and people I encounter, and became aware of cultural differences in both clinical and personal settings. I have gained a home wherever I go and have my home open for all those coming my way. The cultural diversity of this world has made me who I am now – motivated, engaged, curious, hungry. Hungry to make a change in the beautiful but unfair world out there. 

One of the best things on my Global Surgery journey is the family I have gained. Working closely with InciSioN’s diverse Executive Board has been inspiring, seeing how we grew through our studies and within Global Surgery, personally and professionally. Interacting with our International Team with people from 30 different countries only reinforces that sense of unity. But most of all, working alongside Zineb Bentounsi, my dearest colleague from Morocco who goes great lengths to help anyone she can, has showed me the bigger picture. Hearing and witnessing differences at all levels of our life, but also connecting every day with someone perfectly complimenting my personality has not just given me a friend, colleague, and example for as long as we may live, but trumps any of the lessons the experiences above have taught me.





Seizing Opportunities
 
I am not better than any other student. I have walked great avenues by working hard, but also by grabbing the opportunities that were given to me by my academic surroundings. I have been given moments of great mentorship from people that could’ve seen me as the billionth student but didn’t. I speak up because I am grateful for the opportunities that have crossed my path, knowing that there are others less fortunate but most definitely as capable. 
 
For Global Surgery, the care of 5 billion people lacking safe and quality surgery when needed, and the related human rights implications, the path to 2030 and beyond is long and bumpy. It will be filled with sleepless nights and sighs of frustration, knocking doors and hitting walls, shaking our heads and praying in despair; however, it will also be filled with inspiring stories and growing leaders, unexpected turns and surprising solutions, motivational breakthroughs and regained hope for humanity. 
 
Life is all about chances and neither I nor those whose path I have had the honour of crossing will rest until those chances are equal for all. 
 
And so, I’m sitting here, typing these words with Dora’s joie de vivre in mind, pondering about the soothing Cantabrigian wording, motivated by the Ghanaian drive for improvement, cherishing Tanzanian warmth for fellow human beings alike, cultivated by the sincerity of Japanese kindness and Moroccan hospitality, with my mother’s strength and my father’s warm heart as the strong foundation, hoping to one day become even half as great a person as the ones I’ve met. 
 
I am still on this path, and not a single bump will throw me off.
 
Now, reminiscing the thoughts of my young life, I feel more comfortable saying: “Yes, I should be here, and I am not alone.” After all, the future is bright. The future is diverse. And it’s just around the corner.

Author

Dominique Vervoort is a final year medical student at the KU Leuven in Belgium, co-Chair of InciSioN – International Student Surgical Network, the largest Global Surgery network for students and residents around the world, and incoming Research Associate at the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change (PGSSC) at Harvard Medical School.

He has also just been accepted at Harvard Medical School for the Paul Farmer Global Surgery Fellowship with the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change.

You can join him at the InciSioN Global Surgery Symposium in Leuven, Belgium, from May 5-6. Click HERE for more information and to register. 

InciSioN is the largest student-run Global Surgery network with over 2,700 medical and public health students, residents and young doctors from over 70 countries working on Global Surgery. InciSioN’s main activities are driven by a core International Team, consisting of 42 people from 30 different countries, speaking a total of 28 languages. Furthermore, InciSioN’s work goes down to the national level through the National Working Groups, of which 20 are currently fully established in countries in all regions around the world. As a result, InciSioN provides a platform to contribute to the development of future generations of surgeons, anaesthesiologists and obstetricians around the world.

Click HERE to find out more about it.







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