Written by Mark Wardle, DO, Director of the Global Medicine Track (RVU-SU)
In early 2020, just days prior to boarding their scheduled flights, dozens of RVU students and faculty (as well as community volunteers) were notified that their global outreach trips had been canceled due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. The following year, no trips occurred due to the continuation of the pandemic. Then, in January 2022, Camille Bentley, DO, MPH, FACOFP, Chair of the Department of Tracks and Special Programs, led the first RVU outreach trip to Kenya in two years: a clinical elective for third-year osteopathic medical students. That humanitarian mission was wildly successful and was followed in late-February with a fourth-year outreach and Spanish immersion elective to Guatemala and in early-March with the Spring Break Global Medical Outreach electives to Ecuador and the Dominican Republic.
The return of global medicine service trips at RVU was momentous for several reasons. RVU’s clinical partners in Kenya, Guatemala, and Ecuador had been eagerly awaiting RVU’s return—as were the remote villages and communities in these areas—and the faculty and volunteers that love to participate in these expeditions. Students would once again get to experience a significant (and, for some, a once-in-a-lifetime) opportunity that could potentially launch a long career in global medicine service. On the Southern Utah campus, the trip to the Dominican Republic was particularly meaningful. It marked the first new RVU-sponsored outreach trip in several years and was also the first trip directed from the Southern Utah campus.
Mark Wardle, DO, Vice-Chair of Primary Care, and Ben Wilde, DO, FAAFP, Chair of the Department of Clinical Sciences at Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine, led 28 RVU students—consisting of first-, second-, and fourth-year students, as well as one community volunteer and 12 undergraduate students—to the remote villages of the Dominican Republic to provide outreach care. The group teamed up with local physicians and interpreters from Global Medical Training, an international humanitarian organization that provides free medical and dental services to underserved communities in Central America. Together, they cared for over a thousand patients with illnesses ranging from pneumonia and parasites to scabies and skin infections; they also provided free medicine, vitamins, Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment, and patient education.
The success of these trips is not found in the number of patients treated, or the type of illness encountered. Rather, it is discovered in the one-on-one connections created. It is found in consoling a young boy with a clavicle fracture, easing his pain, creating a sling that will work well for him, and teaching his mother how to properly care for it at home. It is in the trust of a young woman who confides in you that she is pregnant. You can find success in the sacrifice and compassion of a woman who gave up her dreams to stay and care for her bed-bound grandmother, as well as in the story of strength and courage of the local physician who battled physical and mental health challenges to get where she is today. Success is even found as you connect with your interpreters throughout the week, become friends, and share in their hopes and dreams.
The successes found are many and are as unique as the people who participate in these medical outreach trips. For three of the participants—Dr. Wardle and then-second-year students Yazmine Krentsa and Joseph Jenkins—the trip to the Dominican Republic was particularly meaningful.
For Dr. Wardle, it was clear by 2020—with the addition of the second campus and the transition of the Guatemalan elective to that of a fourth-year immersion rotation—that creating new trips was necessary. Drs. Wardle and Wilde secured partnerships with nonprofits to launch the new Dominican Republic trips but soon ran into complications in March of 2020 with the announcement of a worldwide pandemic. Two years later, the effort to bring new, Southern Utah-led opportunities to RVU was renewed.
In addition to launching a new trip, this trip was special for Dr. Wardle as it marked his return to the island after a 13-year absence. He had traveled to the Dominican Republic in 2007 and again in 2009 during his residency and fellowship at Utah Valley Family Medicine Residency. “This trip was not only a second chance to lead an outreach elective for RVU,” Dr. Wardle explained, “but it was a chance to reconnect with a culture and a country that I love. Our students were amazing examples of compassion and hard work. They represented RVU well and I was proud to be among them. I would not trade the time I had with them and that experience for anything.”
For SD Krentsa, now a third-year student, traveling to the Dominican Republic for this elective was very personal. Despite having family connections to the country, it had been 20 years since she was last able to visit. “As soon as I landed and felt the hot, humid air hit my face, it felt like home,” Krentsa said. She of course was excited to serve, learn, and use her clinical skills, but the trip helped return the student doctor back to her purpose in medicine and her heritage. “The majority of the [local physicians] we partnered with were women, and it was so inspiring to work with physicians who looked like me,” she said. “[It] reminded me of why I wanted to go into medicine in the first place.” The food, culture, and bonding with the Dominican people were also powerfully influential. “My best friend told me my ‘Latin-ness’ came out in full force,” she continued. “It felt like I [had] lost a part of my identity, but being on the island reminded me of who I am.”
Likewise, SD Jenkins viewed this outreach trip as a homecoming. During orientation, he introduced himself to all and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to come back to his “gente,” his people. He recounted that nine years prior, almost to the day, he had stood on the streets of the Dominican Republic and decided that not only would he become a doctor, but that he would return to serve those in need.
While SD Jenkins was living in the Dominican Republic as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he witnessed a horrific accident. A man and woman were hit by a truck just a few feet from where he stood. “I ran to them without hesitation,” he said. Communicating in Spanish, he helped direct traffic and control the crowd. Then he heard a small boy crying for his mother. “I went to the boy and did my best to console him,” SD Jenkins recalls. Shortly after, the two victims were loaded into the back of a pickup truck and taken to a local hospital with the boy and an aunt following behind. He later learned that neither victim survived.
SD Jenkins recalls feeling “dazed, standing in the dusty streets with blood on my shirt.” That was the day he “received my calling [not just] to practice medicine, but my calling to one day return and connect with and heal the Dominican people.” When SD Jenkins discovered there was an outreach trip to the Dominican Republic, it didn’t feel like a coincidence to him, but “more like a gift from God.” SD Jenkins also said that “being around [them] and talking about what we could do to help them today and how they could improve their own health for years to come was absolutely incredible.”
The return of these global outreach missions has not only helped some return to the countries and cultures they have missed, but they have returned purpose, meaning, and resolve to their work, their studies, and their lives. Most of the students and volunteers that participated in the global trips this year had never been to those countries. Some had never been outside the United States. And yet, like Dr. Wardle, SD Krentsa, and SD Jenkins, each ended their experience with special connections and moments that will forever return to their hearts and minds. Most, if not all, can in some way resonate with the feelings expressed by SD Jenkins as he looked back on his experience: “In comparison to how many people need care in the Dominican Republic, this felt like a drop in the ocean. However, as each new patient [shared their story with me,] it was another confirmation that the calling I received all those years ago still felt right. [My] resolve to be an exceptional physician and care for my patients has never been stronger.”