March 16, 2001

VUMC faculty encourages students to study abroad

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From left, Dr. Christopher Greeley, Dr. John Tarpley, and Dr. Timothy Peters answer questions from the audience during their lectures on "Practicing Medicine Abroad." The three doctors were part of World Health Week events. (photo by Dana Johnson)

VUMC faculty encourages students to study abroad

Eleven months a year, Dr. Christopher S. Greeley serves on the Department of Pediatrics faculty at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The other month, he’s spending time in some of the poorest countries in the world helping physicians learn more about the fundamentals of medicine.

Greeley, assistant professor of Pediatrics, is one of several VUMC physicians who spends time overseas, treating patients and training health care workers. He participated in a panel discussion with Dr. John L. Tarpley, professor of Surgery and Timothy Peters, a fellow in Pediatric Infectious Diseases, during Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s World Health Week 2001. The trio talked about and showed slides of their trips overseas during one of the week-long sessions sponsored by VUSM and the International Committee on Medical Educational Experiences.

Greeley has spent a month each year in Cambodia and South Africa for the past five years. In Cambodia, where half of the population is younger than 14, he spent time at Angkor Hospital for Children, a freestanding children’s hospital. He helped train physicians who go to school for seven years, but whose education is roughly equivalent to a first or second year medical education in the United States.

“With every trip, I realize with a little planning I can leave a little there. I can plant a seed,” he said, encouraging medical students attending the panel discussion to consider a trip abroad. “You can make an impact. Using the skills you’ve been given, you can help teach physicians there. If you are highly trained, leave some of what you know there. Don’t just paint bridges or mop floors when you go. Leave something there.”

Tarpley travels to Nigeria each year. The ability to teach there is what makes him want to go back.

“I want to be able to equip them to perform and practice better, to help them become more efficient. My goal is to continue to raise the bar,” Tarpley said. “It is important, for those who wonder how to practice if you don’t have the technological support, to realize that you can do a very good job with just a history and a physical.

“We have had the privilege to come and stand behind these physicians and help them better address the health care needs of their people.”

Peters has traveled to Romania and Botswana, Africa to learn more about HIV and its impact on children. In Africa, where 22 million people are infected with HIV, there are 10 million AIDS orphans.

The high incidence of HIV is not because of a lack of public education about the risks, he said.

“It’s not because they don’t know about the risks. The people of Botswana are at least as knowledgeable about the risks as people in the United States,” he said, showing posters and signs posted throughout the country. “It’s a massive educational effort.”

Costanza Municipal Hospital in Romania, where Peters visited, has the highest concentration of HIV-infected children in the world. “I drown in these numbers,” he told the group, showing slides of the children he has encountered. One tiny 6-year-old boy, sitting on a hospital bed, lost his mother to AIDS and remained on the ward during Peters’ month there. “Nobody came to pick him up.”

“Because of these children, I have a far better knowledge of what a privilege it is to have a medical education and serve in this way,” he said.