In the unique BGU program, students train to practice medicine in varied cultural settings and clinical conditions.It was while she was serving in the Peace Corps in a Thai village that Carolyn Judge heard about the medical program of her dreams.
Four years later, she was packing her bags to study medicine in Israel. The fact that by then, Israel was engaged in its struggle with Hezbollah in Lebanon didn’t stop the 28-year-old American from pursuing her dream.
Two weeks ago, Judge and 46 other young men and women from the US, Canada, India and Africa arrived in Beersheva to begin studies that will turn them into
doctors specially trained to practice medicine in far-flung corners of the world.
There was only one cancellation among the 48 students who were accepted to the unique, English-language international medical school — the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Faculty of Health Sciences Medical School for International Health in collaboration with Columbia University Medical Center (BGU-CU MSIH).
“The biggest concern of most of the students was that we might delay or cancel their studies,” says the school’s BGU director Dr. Carmi Margolis. “They didn’t seem worried about safety issues, and they were very relieved when we announced the start of the program.”
Judge says she would have gone anywhere in the world to realize her dream of becoming a doctor who works with less fortunate populations from diverse cultures.
“Naturally, I considered the safety issues regarding going to school in Israel,” she says, but adds that she was reassured by BGU’s website which stated that: “Beersheva, where Ben-Gurion University is located, is a relatively safe, quiet city, outside traditional areas of conflict.”
After a week in Israel, the former Peace Corps volunteer does not feel misled.
“I’d never been to Israel before,” says Judge. “And many friends and relatives were concerned about me going at this time. But I have no sense of impending doom here. I jog every morning and feel completely safe in Beersheva. It’s a quiet town that reminds me of a college town in the Midwest with a desert instead of cornfields,” says the Chicago native.
“And the culture shock is much milder than what I experienced while serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand because there is a lot of Western influence here,” adds the University of Illinois graduate, who has been recording her experience in Israel in her blog — (www.CarolynJudgeblogspot.com)
For Ruth Kanthula, another new student in the medical school, this was also her first time in Israel. “I didn’t hesitate to come here,” says Kanthula, a graduate of the George Washington University School for Public Health.
Kanthula has a strong personal motivation for her career choice. Born in Malawi, and raised in the United States, Kanthula, has seen the toll that poor medical care takes on people in developing countries. “My mother is one of five children . All four of her brothers and sisters in Malawi died by the time they were in their thirties or forties from preventable diseases,” says Kanthula. “When I was a child, going to the hospital in Malawi was a death sentence.” Kanthula is determined to do her part to change this. And she believes that the BGU-CU program offers her the tools to do that.
“I hope to work as a doctor in Africa. At BGU, I found a whole program aimed at creating doctors who are culturally sensitive and want to practice medicine in developing countries.”
Kanthula, Judge and their classmates will spend the next four years in Israel’s Negev desert, training to practice medicine in varied cultural settings and clinical conditions. Days after arriving in Israel, they began a crash course in Hebrew and emergency medicine.
In their first year of studies they will be interviewing patients in community clinics in the Negev — including local Bedouin, as well as immigrants from Ethiopia, Russia and Morocco – in order to improve cross-cultural communication skills (with the help of a translator.)
In their fourth year of studies, students in the school may take up to five months of clinical electives at Columbia University’s affiliated hospitals in New York, and must complete a two-month hands-on clinical clerkship in locations including Kenya, Ethiopia, India, Nepal, Peru or Vietnam.
The program, now in its ninth year, includes students who hail from all over the world, among them, several Muslims and Palestinian Americans. After completing residency training, alumni become global health practitioners, doing clinical work, policy development and medical education. One recent graduate manages healthcare clinics for refugees in Darfur, Sudan.
Judge believes that her BGU-Columbia training will give her an edge over other med school grads when seeking a residency placement. “I’ll have the advantage of having gone to med school while adapting to a new cultural environment and functioning in a foreign language. You can only imagine how this will make me stand out from other medical graduates,” she wrote in her blog.
Kanthula is especially delighted with her classmates. “For the first time in my life, I’m with a group of students who all share the same vision of medicine that I have. It’s amazing.”
As for the conflict with Lebanon, it has had no direct impact on the students in Beersheva. “It’s business as usual for us,” says the BGU School director Margolis. However, he adds that the teaching hospital where the students will train, Soroka Medical Center, is inundated with displaced people from northern Israel. “In the pediatric ward where I work, three out of four new admissions are children from the north,” he notes. “Apparently, the stress triggers a lot of illnesses.”