By Robert E. Kalb, MD, November 01, 2011
Growing up in a family of nine, I was the first to attend college. I saw what a difference education can make in a person’s life and I vowed that I would help to make that difference for someone else. As we get busy in our lives, with responsibilities to our practice and our family, it is not always easy to make a commitment to volunteer. Yet, not only can it be done; it can be a family adventure that is extremely rewarding and well worth the effort!
The American Academy of Dermatology has a partnership with Health Volunteers Overseas, whose mission is to provide training and education to health care providers in developing countries. That philosophy of long-term sustainability certainly resonated with me. As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”
I made the decision in 2006 to volunteer in Cambodia and timed the visit to coincide with a school break so that my wife and two children in college were able to accompany me. They were able to teach English at a nearby school while I worked with a hospital in the capital of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The experience was such a rewarding one for all of us that we have made four trips in the last five years.
Professionally, it is fascinating to encounter diseases and conditions that we are unlikely to see in the U.S., such as nutritional deficiencies that lead to scurvy or pellagra, acrodermatitis, or Hansen’s Disease. Conditions that we normally encounter in our practices at home, such as psoriasis, systemic lupus, and pemphigus, are often far more severe in developing countries, as a result of lack of treatment, delay in seeking care, or insufficient medications.[pagebreak]
There is currently only one native Cambodian, Dr. Sithach Mey, who has completed a full residency in dermatology, so HVO is assisting with training at the hospital and increasing the teaching of dermatology at the local medical school. As a result of my interest in Cambodia, I have been serving as HVO’s program director for the dermatology project there. The project’s goal is to offer assistance to Dr. Mey in his various activities and provide basic dermatologic teaching sessions for medical students and physicians enrolled in a one-and-a-half year diploma course that prepares them to provide dermatologic care. There are also opportunities to supervise clinics with the physicians who recently have completed this diploma course. It has been very rewarding to see the progress that has occurred as I have worked with Dr. Mey. The country faced such a loss of professionals during their time under the rule of the Khmer Rouge and the majority of the country’s population today is under the age of 25. It is an exciting time to work with the Cambodian people as I see this new generation begin to take charge of their future.
It has also been a wonderful experience to share as a family. My children have been exposed to a different culture and now have a better understanding of both global issues and themselves. They now have friends on the other side of the globe, with whom they stay in touch through Facebook, for an ongoing dialogue.[pagebreak]
Scheduling time to volunteer is a commitment. I am fortunate in my practice to have a physician assistant who can cover routine visits in my absence. Colleagues in group practices also have a bit more flexibility with their time. I have scheduled my volunteer visits using vacation time, but it has always been a worthwhile sacrifice! I have found each experience to be so rewarding that I often wonder if my family and I receive more than we give. Of course, not all of our time is spent working. We have made sure to take advantage of the opportunities that are available, to see sites of cultural and political importance (e.g.: Angkor Wat, the Killing Fields Museum). The people are eager to share their country and culture, so it’s been a great way to relax with colleagues and new friends.
For those who have contemplated volunteering their skills, I would say, “Go for it!” Travel with an open mind, stay flexible, and take advantage of the opportunities available. You will receive so much in return. I look forward to continuing to share my skills and knowledge on these trips, and to learn from my gracious colleagues and hosts.
Academy members can volunteer with Health Volunteers Overseas
Since 2004, the American Academy of Dermatology has partnered with Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO) to match interested dermatologists with overseas volunteer opportunities. Through HVO programs, dermatologist volunteers train local health care providers, giving them the knowledge and skills to make a difference in their own communities.
The major goal of HVO’s dermatology programs is to build capacity by training local health care providers (ranging from dermatology residents to primary care health workers) in clinical dermatology.
Sites with volunteer opportunities for dermatologists include Cambodia, Costa Rica, India, Peru, and Uganda. Volunteers generally serve for two to four weeks, although shorter and longer assignments are possible.
Founded in 1986, HVO is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to improving the availability and quality of health care in developing countries through the training and education of local health care providers. HVO designs and implements clinical education programs across the spectrum of health specialties. To learn more about volunteering with HVO, visit www.hvousa.org or contact the HVO Program Department at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss which program will best match your skills and interests.