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US Army vets take on international medicine in Israel

Posted By Patricia Golan On June 23, 2008 @ 10:29 am In | No Comments

MSIH is the only medical school in the world designed to train a new type of physician. Medical student Rachel Barney, a former US Marine helicopter pilot, at the Hatzerim Air base with Yaakov Terner, the mayor of Beersheva. It was during her first tour in Iraq as a US Marine helicopter pilot that Rachel Barney realized medicine was what she really wanted to do.

The seminal experience that led Soliman Yaqub to medicine took place in 2001 when he was an American soldier among the US troops that entered Afghanistan: “The health conditions there were horrific,” he recalls. “I was wrestling with the idea of how I could help in the long run. Then I thought of medicine.”

No strangers to challenges, US military vets Barney and Yaqub are now in Beer-Sheva, Israel completing their first year in a rigorous global healthcare program at the Medical School for International Health (MSIH), a collaborative program of Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev and Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

Established 10 years ago, the MSIH is the only medical school in the world designed specifically to train a new type of physician skilled not only to practice internationally, but who would also develop special skills for dealing with multicultural populations.

In addition to the basic American-style medical curriculum taught in English, students at the MSIH learn cross-cultural communication, they study nutrition in developing worlds, as well as how to provide disaster relief, population-based medicine, and how to deal with bio-terrorism. By the fourth year the students are placed in a three-month residency in a developing country.

As a Naval Aviator in the US Marine Corps, Barney flew reconnaissance, Medevac escorts and air support missions in Iraq between 2003 and 2006: “My time in the military brought home the importance of service,” she says.

Born in New Jersey, Barney earned a B.Sc. in Chemical Engineering at Columbia University, and while serving in the marines, an M.Sc. in Aeronautical Science. It was as an undergraduate in New York City that she got her first medical experience while working for the New York City Emergency Medical Services. After graduation she became a paramedic with the service, and in 1997 signed up for the Marines.

Barney had not considered flying before joining the military. When she showed up at the Marines recruiting office in 1997 she learned that women were offered less than half the number of occupational specialties available to men. But women had been accepted as pilots since 1993: “Being a pilot is a very transferable skill, so when the recruiting officer offered, I said why not!”

Barney completed advanced flight training and was designated a Naval Aviator. In 2001 she was deployed to Japan, returning just before the cataclysmic attack on the World Trade Center on September 11. She was sent to Iraq in 2003.

At the time, “nobody expected war,” she recalls. “We were in the Gulf, we were preparing for war, but we didn’t think it would happen. We didn’t have the support of the UN. We thought perhaps it would be worked out diplomatically. Then one day a missile fell on the edge of our camp in Kuwait just as I was getting out of the shower.”

Barney would earn nine Air Medal Awards for flight strikes in Iraq, something she explains modestly. She says, “When you’re a pilot and fly combat missions, you accumulate points for what you do; when you get a certain number of points you get an air medal. I went, I did my job.”

But it wasn’t simple. Barney lost several friends in Iraq — some to enemy action, some to “mishaps,” and suicides. In her last assignment in Iraq, Barney was a company commander running part of an airfield with 150 marines under her command.

New Yorker Soliman Yaqub, 31, was a sergeant in the US army when he joined a unit of the American troops that entered Afghanistan in December 2001. Because he spoke Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, Yaqub served in the security field, mainly as a translator. He remained in Afghanistan until late spring 2002.

Yaqub was born in Afghanistan, but at the age of two-and-a-half his parents fled to the US. That was in 1980 just after the Soviet military invasion. The Yakub family settled in Queens where he grew up.

As an undergraduate he had no desire to become a doctor. He had joined the army reserves in college, with the idea of eventually working in law enforcement, and earned a degree in forensic psychology. After graduation he signed up for active duty and was sent to Germany. During this period he earned an MA in International Relations.

Yaqub lobbied hard to be sent to Afghanistan. As he recalls it today, returning to the place of his birth in his 20s as an American soldier was a powerful experience: “Going through the villages, it really hit me emotionally. It made me think. My family escaped all this: a country which has been at war for years – this terrible poverty.”

He saw some combat, but the first few months were relatively calm for the US troops. “Still, there’s always that anxiety,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “You’re in the middle of a village you don’t know who is who, and if someone is going to suddenly attack. Most of the Taliban had scattered, but the question was where did they scatter to? It wasn’t like fighting a clearly defined army.”

Seeing the misery of the Afghans shook him up: “I remember the first village I visited where we’d gone to assess the situation. The houses were made out of mud. A little girl, about 5 years old, covered in dirt, came up and stood next to me staring, barefoot, holding a two-year-old in her arms. This image is still fresh in my mind.”

That Afghanistan experience proved pivotal in his choice of professions. Like Barney and many of his other fellow med students, Yaqub was motivated to apply for the Israeli-based BGU-Columbia program, at least in part, by his appreciation of the benefits of having grown up in the US: “When you grow up in America life is good, everything is calm and peaceful; you can do whatever you want with your life; you have opportunities. I’d been given this opportunity to leave Afghanistan and to make something better of my life.”

Barney feels the same way: “I have a real appreciation of how lucky I was being an American,” states Barney, to explain – at least partly – her decision. “I am a firm believer in some sort of payback for the benefits I received as a citizen, and I’ve had astounding benefits as an American.”

Though most of the foreign students who take part in the medical program in Israel are from the US, they come from a variety of cultures and backgrounds, many from families like Yaqub’s who immigrated to North America – from Belarus, Iran, Morocco, Panama, Sudan, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. Most are non-Jews who had never been to Israel before.

American-born Dr. Carmi Margolis, director of the MSIH, characterizes global medicine as requiring “compassion for another human being whose cultural world is outside your own.”

Students at the MSIH find that daily living in Israel is in itself a cross-cultural experience. Beer-Sheva with its diverse population, including a large Russian-speaking community, has been a surprise for most.

They have also experienced close encounters with Bedouins, new Ethiopian immigrants, African refugees visiting the Tel Aviv clinic run by the Physicians for Human Rights, and Palestinians in Bethlehem, to name a few.

“These are not the same kinds of students that are applying for residency programs at Columbia,” Dr. Margolis says of the students he helps train: “They are more altruistic and idealistic by definition.”

In general, they are also older and with more life experience. As Barney puts it, “I think the skills I gathered through those experiences will ultimately allow me to serve people more effectively than I could have otherwise.”


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