High school students return from Malawi mission trip
MEDFORD, Mass. (AP) — You don’t need to be Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates to make a difference.
That’s a message Dr. Brian A. Lisse, an emergency medicine physician at Nashoba Valley Medical Center and associate professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Dr. Donald Hangen, an orthopedic surgeon at UMass Memorial-Marlboro Hospital, bring to a handful of high school students each year who accompany their team on a two-week medical mission trip to Malawi.
The trip, which takes place in April, is a program of Bridges to Malawi, a nonprofit organization founded by Dr. Lisse in 2012. The organization aims to improve medical care, reduce malaria deaths, aid sustainable development, offer educational opportunities and engage multidisciplinary teams of U.S. health care providers and students in helping the most medically-underserved people in the world.
The southeast African country of Malawi is one of the world’s poorest.
Life expectancy is only around 60 years, compared to 78.6 years in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. AIDS and other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria take their toll as major causes of death.
“We don’t think of this as a high school trip,” Dr. Hangen said. “We actually put them to work.”
Students help out in St. Andrews Hospital in Mtunthama, run by the Anglican Diocese of Malawi with support from the British organization Medic Malawi, and the Kasugu District Hospital, taking vital signs and working in outreach clinics. They also work on their own at an orphanage.
Bridges to Malawi takes six to 10 high school juniors and seniors a year from Nashoba Regional High School, Hudson High School and Marlboro High School. Next year, organizers hope to include Ayer-Shirley Regional High School.
Before going on the trip, students attend lectures on diseases common in Malawi as well as the culture, language, history and economy of the country. The student who scores highest on a test about those lessons gets their trip paid for by the organization. Other students pay their own way.
“If you ever had any doubt about millennials,” Dr. Hangen said, “I am in awe.”
Halle Hangen, 18, a senior at Nashoba and Dr. Hangen’s daughter, has made two trips to Malawi.
“It puts you really far out of your comfort zone. You’re exposed to a lot that you don’t see in America,” she said.
Ms. Hangen talked about seeing people die from malaria, a mosquito-borne disease caused by a parasite, which causes severe flu-like illness.
“It’s really striking,” she said, adding, “I really loved helping people.”
Marlboro High School junior Herzen Reis, 17, had never traveled farther than Worcester before, and said he hated airplanes.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said about the trip.
After listening to morning medical reports, learning to take vital signs on children in the hospital and then helping care for some of the 80 to 100 children at the orphanage, Mr. Reis said he’s considering a career in global health.
So is Gabriela Batista, 18, a senior at Hudson High School.
Ms. Batista also wasn’t sure what to expect and was surprised by the relative luxury of her host family’s home, near the hospital where they worked. They had running water and cable access — sometimes.
At the hospital, she said, shortages of equipment were routine.
“Oh yeah, we’re out of gloves,” Ms. Batista said the hospital staff would announce. “They just make do with what they have.”
Dr. Hangen said that the government-run district hospital, which provides care free of charge, has been without X-ray for three years.
The Bridges to Malawi team packs into the group’s duffel bags supplies from home, including medicine, syringes, gloves, nebulizers, blood pressure cuffs and thermometers.
Dr. Hangen scours eBay for orthopedic equipment that can be used without surgery, such as traction devices that haven’t been used in the U.S. for the last 50 years.
Students always ask why the Malawi villagers are so happy, despite the scarcity of resources and lack of material goods, according to Dr. Hangen.
“They’ve got their food, they’ve got their faith, they’ve got their family, they’ve got everything,” Dr. Lisse said. “They’re not upset because they don’t have ... the iPhone 27. I think a lot of Americans are unhappy people because they don’t have enough stuff. The kids learn they don’t need that.”
Dr. Lisse, who started Bridges to Malawi after bringing medical and high school students to Nicaragua for several years, said medical mission work was “the family business.” His grandfather was a country doctor in Maryland.
“We were raised on stories of making house calls and getting paid in chicken and corn,” Dr. Lisse said.
He said he liked to work “where you feel you can make a difference.”
The type of hands-on medical care the team provides in Malawi makes for better clinical technique as well, according to Dr. Lisse, a graduate of University of Massachusetts Medical School.
“Today’s doctors and nurses are trained to do tests first. I was trained not to do that,” he said.
Clinicians in Malawi, or wherever technology resources are limited, have to figure out what a problem might be first, and then do a test to confirm their assessment.
Dr. Hangen said he cherished the opportunity to do direct patient care, without insurance hassles and bureaucracy.
“Just to give. That’s why I went into medicine in the first place,” he said.
Dr. Lisse said that the indoor residual spraying for mosquitoes supported by Bridges to Malawi with a grant from Rotary International saves an estimated 1,000 lives a year in the district, reducing the rate of malaria — and deaths — by two-thirds.
Dr. Lisse has been talking with Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Pamela Weathers about her work cultivating the artemisia plant to prevent malaria, which could be a godsend to the region.
The organization also helps with micro-credit loans and augmenting work by Malawi partner K2 TASO’s ongoing goat “pass on” program. This program gives goats to impoverished farmers to give them a better source of nutrition and improve their income.
Dr. Hangen and Dr. Lisse said they’d like to grow the program to develop a dairy, “To make it so farmers don’t need us anymore.”
Education is a critical part of health and development, too.
Two years ago, Jennifer Hardy, a programming and web development teacher at Worcester Technical High School, joined the Bridges to Malawi team after her son, then a Marlboro High School student, participated in the program.
Last year she organized donation of laptop computers to two schools, one on the power grid and one with solar energy.
This year, accompanied by an English teacher from Worcester Tech, she brought along 35 computers for four schools, three of which had solar panels and one on the power grid.
Many of the laptops were provided by GE Elfun Computer Rehab of Schenectady, New York, restored by General Electric retirees.
The computers are loaded with offline Khan Academy lessons and thousands of pieces of educational materials and books, through the Global Sustainability Aid Project’s portal and Lab-in-a-Box. Students don’t need an internet connection to access the material.
Not only do students learn from the preloaded studies, but by practicing typing skills with one of the digital videos provided, they gain an important job skill.
About 80 percent of the population works in subsistence farming. To gain marketable skills beyond that is a boost.
“It was just life-changing,” Ms. Hardy said of her visits. “They call Malawi the heart of Africa, and when you see Malawians, you see why. I come home with a lot more than I give.”
Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com