DECEMBER 15, 2014—International electives provide medical students with unique opportunities to gain leadership insights while providing service to others in settings that are often outside their comfort zones. Students who take international electives often find themselves in rural areas where they don’t have access to medical supplies and technology that are readily found in the U.S., pushing them to rely on the basics.
As a fourth-year medical student, Antonio Webb, MD (M’14), now an orthopedic surgery resident at the University of Texas, San Antonio, spent a month at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Liberia. When he left Georgetown in March 2014 to begin his elective, the Ebola outbreak had not yet developed.
In a blog post, Webb explains what it was like working in the emergency room at the medical center. He saw patients with a range of conditions; one was a diabetic, another was suffering from liver failure and Webb had to provide CPR to others. In some situations, local physicians weren’t readily available and he had to quickly decide what type of treatments to provide his patients.
Normal working conditions at John F. Kennedy Medical Center soon changed.
“A week after arriving in country, we became aware of six patients who were confirmed to have Ebola in Liberia,” says Webb.
Preparing for an Epidemic
Officials from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention arrived to help the medical center devise plans for handling patients with suspected Ebola. They provided lectures about the virus, how to prevent it from spreading and what plans should be in place for a possible outbreak.
“Before that moment, there were no clear plans for what to do if a patient showed symptoms of Ebola; no plans for isolation and no plans for treatment,” Webb explains.
The scarcity of gowns, gloves and personal protective equipment also posed a problem, he adds.
“At that point, we never imagined that Ebola would become so deadly and devastate a country so quickly,” Webb says.
Webb treated several patients with symptoms of the virus and was fortunate not to contract Ebola. Unfortunately, that was not the case for everyone Webb had worked alongside of. Upon his return to the U.S., he learned that three physicians he worked closely with died from Ebola and several others had become ill.
His experiences in Liberia are among the topics Webb covers in a book that he recently published.
More than Medical Training
During his short time in Liberia, Webb learned what it was like to work in an emergency room with little access to the tools and resources he was accustomed to in the U.S. He was in a country at the beginning of what would become a devastating outbreak. And he learned not to take anything for granted.
“There were several times during my stay in Liberia that I questioned my reasoning for going,” Webb says.
The electricity worked properly only half the time, there was a lack of fresh water and there wasn’t air conditioning. A lot of the local people work long hours for little pay and many don’t have a place to call home, he explains.
“But I reminded myself that was the way of life there and the Liberian people are so grateful for the things they do have,” Webb says. “Upon returning, I have found myself to be more grateful for the things we have in the U.S.”
By Sarah Reik