Nearly seven years after giving birth to a baby boy in Fiji, West Virginia University medical student Rebecca Seay returned to the country for another delivery.

Seay was part of a group from WVU that spent four weeks in the island nation, studying and providing free healthcare as part of the WVU School of Medicine’s Global Health Program.

"The students see diseases they've never seen before and experience cultures that they'd never be exposed to otherwise. As far as their education, these trips not only do a lot for their knowledge but also for their self confidence. You can see it grow as they talk to patients."

--Dr. Jan Palmer
on WVU's Global Health Program

A recent School of Medicine graduate, Seay moved to Fiji in 2004 with her husband J.B. to manage Rivers Fiji, a white water rafting company owned by former WVU faculty member Kelly Bricker and her husband. The Seays found out they were pregnant with their first child shortly after they arrived and returned home the next year.

The initial trip not only provided the Seays with a healthy baby, but planted a seed in Rebecca’s mind. She realized her good fortune – she had given birth at a private hospital and received care that most Fijians could only dream of affording. She wanted to attend medical school, but, more than the challenge of starting a new career path, she wanted to give back to the people of Fiji and other under-developed countries.

For Seay, it is both a mission accomplished and a mission begun as she hopes to make global service part of her career.

“It was a dream come true to go back to Fiji and give back,” said Seay, who also holds a WVU degree in recreation, parks and tourism resources. “It made me feel like I made good on a promise I made to myself and to them.”

Seay’s return to her adopted country would not have been possible without WVU’s Global Health program, which has not only changed the lives of people who face dramatic obstacles to fulfilling even their most basic health needs, but also the lives of the WVU students and faculty who care for them.

“The students see diseases they’ve never seen before and experience cultures that they’d never be exposed to otherwise,” said Dr. Jan Palmer, a faculty member in WVU’s School of Medicine and director of WELLWVU Student Health who oversees many of the trips. “As far as their education, these trips not only do a lot for their knowledge but also for their self confidence. You can see it grow as they talk to patients.”

Since 1991, the program has given students in medicine, dentistry and other health careers opportunities to visit and provide care in countries whose people have limited access to health care and lack the resources necessary to combat health-related issues. It has established long-standing relationships with under-developed countries such as Guatemala, Ghana and Barbuda but included Fiji at the suggestion of the Brickers.

Drs. Palmer and Greg Juckett, who have been involved in the program since its inception, took separate exploratory trips to Fiji and both came to the same conclusion.

“It fulfilled our wildest expectations,” Juckett said.

“The Global Health Program looks at a number of different factors,” he continued. “We want to make sure the trip is a good educational experience for our students and make sure there’s good logistical support for operating a clinic. We want to make sure we can do it in a safe environment and we want to make sure that the people at the clinic or at the site are eager to have the service.”

The group, which included med students Cortney Ballengee and Nandini Kalakota, spent two weeks at Nakavika Village, a remote village of 250 people in the Namosi Highlands, on Viti Levu Island. Most of the villagers are subsistence farmers who have little experience with the English language. The village has one dirt road and, under normal circumstances, has electrical power available for about two hours a day. Its one vehicle is a bus, primarily used to transport students to school.

“The terrain is extremely rugged,” Juckett said, “giant rocks sticking up, giant ravines, all covered with jungle. It looks very much like a lost world. You expect raptors to come out of the bush.”

WVU’s team spent two weeks providing care at Nakavika and two weeks at hospitals in Suva, Fiji’s capital. They provided mainly primary care, which included relief from tropical infections, stomach ailments due to impure drinking water, hypertension, diabetes and a variety of skin lesions.

At Nakavika, citizens from surrounding villages trekked on foot, sometimes for more than a day, to receive care at a makeshift clinic that required a generator to provide additional power and a daily sweeping of toads which infested the clinic room each night. Juckett said the group saw about 800 patients.

In the evenings, the doctors mixed business with pleasure, meeting with families over kava, a local herbal drink included at every social gathering, and dispensing health tips.

Although conditions were less primitive in Suva, the hospitals’ resources did not compare to facilities that serve similar populations in the U.S. The first cardiac stent procedure in the country was performed during the WVU group’s visit and the country’s first MRI scanner is expected to be delivered later this year.

Despite these limitations and their brief stay, WVU’s presence was well received in both locations.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the Fijian people were really kind and they appreciated us being there,” Kalakota said. “We were busy but I felt we were really useful.”

Rather than a quick fix, WELLWVU and the Global Health Program’s mission is to make an impact on the health of a region. Along with making Fiji an annual part of the program, Juckett and Palmer will work with the Fijian government and other agencies to improve access to and delivery of care, particularly in Nakavika and surrounding villages. Also, a team of students from WVU’s Engineers Without Borders chapter is expected to visit Fiji later this year to help fix water quality issues that plague small villages like Nakavika.

Although it can’t solve many of the inherent health issues of the countries they visit, WVU’s Global Health Program has an impact. Along with educating students, it builds relationships among nations and embodies a spirit of goodwill and camaraderie, Juckett said. The aim is not to provide the proverbial band aid to the problem but to provide the opportunity for growth and change.

“The important thing is not the pill you give them to treat their fungal infection,” Palmer said, “but teaching them some lifestyle changes. I sat around some of the evenings, with kava, and talked to people about what they could do to maintain healthier lifestyles. It’s not just about dispensing medicine to sick people.”

“Certainly, it was a fantastic educational experience for our students and we helped the villagers while we were there but it would be much more useful for them if they had a nursing presence where they could get care during the rest of the year,” Juckett said of Fiji’s villagers.

And for Seay, the trip was more than returning to a country where she’d lived and given birth to her son. It reinforced the importance of public service and programs like WVU Global Health.

“Honestly, it was the highlight of my medical education,” she said. “The global health track makes WVU a better medical school.”

She said many of the health issues that face citizens of under-developed nations are the same in West Virginia.

“Just having access to care, sometimes the inability to pay – there just are not as many opportunities for people to get proper care.

“I think it would be wonderful for every American to spend time in a developing country,” she added. “It would give people a chance to see what life is like for most of the world. It can be a shock.”

By Dan Shrensky
University Relations/News



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