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Alumnus jumpstarts his IU medical education with mission trip

Neal Shah travels to remote Indian villages to provide care, gain physician skills

Friday Oct 04, 2013

If Neal Shah were to hand in a school essay titled, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” it might, at first, seem like a tall tale.

Getting stranded in the mountains by a monsoon that lasted 101 straight hours, and nearly having his campsite obliterated by floodwaters and wayward boulders, isn’t exactly what the medical student from Munster, Ind., had in mind.

But he also trekked across some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world, camped among the clouds, literally, and learned about cultures so vastly different than his own in the most authentic way possible.

Most importantly, he provided medical care to villagers in Northern India who live several hours away from any kind of hospital, clinic or physician’s office while gaining valuable hands-on skills that will benefit him greatly as he pursues a career in medicine.

Shah, a 2012 Indiana University Northwest chemistry graduate, and second-year student at the IU School of Medicine – Northwest (IUSM-NW), took the 15-day trip through the Himalayan Health Exchange, an organization that brings medical missions to remote areas throughout the Himalayan Mountain region.

A win-win opportunity

Having completed his first year at IUSM-NW, Shah jumped at the opportunity to join the 30-person team that included students, instructors and physicians from the U.S., Canada and England.

After arriving in India and setting out to the first site, Shah quickly learned that this would truly be a “roughing it” type of experience.

“We took a paved road for maybe 15 minutes and the remaining 6 1/2 hours was on a dirt road,” Shah said.

After setting up camp at an elevation of about 7,000 feet, the clinic opened its tents to villagers who had waited months to ask health professionals about what had ailed them, most commonly back and joint pain, typical maladies for those who spend their days doing hard manual labor, mostly in inappropriate shoes. Parasites and dry eyes are other common problems.

A translator assisted each doctor-in-training, like Shah, who was allowed to assess patients, and offer his diagnosis and treatment plan to an attending physician, who concurred with the plan before allowing the doctor trainees to speak directly to the patients and their families.

Shah said the experience really gave him a taste of how what he is learning is implemented in real life.

“In medical school, the first two years is book work and the second two years is applying what you’ve learned,” he said. “What we did there is really what we’d do in our third year here … really, truly treating a patient.”

Lessons in diversity

When it was time to pack up the camp and head to the second site, Shah and his colleagues put their belongings in a car and set off on foot for their next destination, another 2,000 feet up the mountain.

After arriving at the second campsite, much like the first from a medical standpoint, Shah began to also see the educational benefits of interacting with people with vastly different experiences and culture than his own.

Shah explained that no matter where you are in the world, people share many of the same problems; they just express it in different ways. Taking the time to listen to each patient provides a lesson in compassion for future physicians, Shah said, and he gained much respect for those who’d suffered adversity in their lives.

“As a future physician, the more I interact with all types of people, the more I will understand about the different experiences that a person could have,” he said.

Looking forward to doing it all again

Looking back on the entire experience, and recounting the unexpected hardships, Shah said he would definitely consider doing another mission trip.

He said he is undecided as to what medical specialty he will pursue, but his experience in India made one thing clear: he prefers medicine to surgery, because of the face-to-face interaction with people.

“It was rewarding in the sense that I was helping others,” Shah said, “but that didn’t seem out of the ordinary for me, because that is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”

Shah said that he appreciated his undergraduate education at IU Northwest for many reasons, but one of the biggest benefits to his future is the diverse nature of the education he received.

“IU Northwest provided me with a diverse selection of classes that were both science-related and non-science.  I took business, math, art, social science, cultural, and philosophy classes in addition to my core science classes,” Shah said. “All those subjects that IU Northwest offered will contribute to my interactions with all the diverse people I encounter now and in the future.”

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