Medicine in the Developing World
By: Somia Mohanty
"I would have never imagined that following my dreams would take me over 4,000 miles away from home to a small Caribbean island with a hypnotic coastline.
Following My Dreams
Some kids played with Barbies, some were interested in throwing and kicking balls, and others devoted their recreational time putting Crayons on paper. I was the kid carrying around a plastic Doctor’s kit while running around “hearing” peoples’ heartbeats. So it’s no surprise that by the age of four, I was already telling people I was going to be a doctor when I grew up.
It was not until I was in college that I realized what the medical field was going to be like: it was going to be competitive, a long and arduous journey, and a pursuit that would require my devotion. When reality set in, I had considered different paths such as athletic training or becoming a Physician's Assistant. But, deep down, I knew nothing would make me feel as content as being a doctor. With a heightened sense of awareness and career dream in my mind, I set off to take my MCAT and apply for schools. And take my word on it — I would have never imagined that following my dreams would take me over 4,000 miles away from home to a small Caribbean island with a hypnotic coastline.
When people hear I went to St. George's University (SGU) in the Caribbean, their initial reaction is usually along the lines of, “Wow, you’re so lucky.” However, I’m not so sure ‘lucky’ would be my word of choice. Yes, the beaches in Grenada are some of the best in the world and yes, the cocktails are addicting. But Grenada is not like other Caribbean islands — or the ones you imagine when you think of the Caribbean — when it comes to development and modernization.
Arriving in Grenada
I had no idea what to expect - I was shocked when I stepped off the plane to see how small the airport was. As I explored the island, I continued to be surprised by the country. It was a third-world nation with a small population, poorly paved roads, few shops and restaurants, and most goods were imported. From the get-go, there were glaring differences between Grenada and developed nations. Most locals can be seen walking alongside the road because the vast majority don’t own cars. There were only two main grocery stores that relied on imported goods, which meant groceries were a lot more expensive. In a way, being isolated proved to be beneficial since it meant there were no distractions. The curriculum meant we were in class half the day and studying the rest.
During my two years on the island, I grew accustomed to life in Grenada. I believe going to medical school helped shape me into becoming a better doctor: it made me realize I could live a simpler life and focus on my passion of helping others. However, simply put, health care in Grenada is horrible — most people don't have access to any form of healthcare and there is limited access to medical technology for those who do have it. Because SGU mandated we go to the Grenada General Hospital once a week during our last semester of medical school, we got to witness firsthand how limited the resources were for patients and the severity of their illnesses.
For instance, there was no air conditioning in hospitals, which left patients lying in half-broken beds sweating in the heat. Grenada is very hot, with the normal temperature always around 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit. Adding to the ambiance is the relentless humidity. Seeing these patients and the condition of healthcare in Grenada reinforced my interest in serving the underprivileged.
Finding My Niche
One experience that still stands out to me is the case of a 4-year-old boy with Wilms' tumor, a rare kidney cancer found in children. The condition, also called nephroblastoma, usually has a good prognosis when discovered early. In the U.S., this condition wouldn’t be an issue — the tumor would be resected and the child would undergo some form of chemo or radiation therapy. But in Grenada, it’s a whole different story. Due to the lack of resources, the nearest hospital capable of performing the procedure is Barbados, a nearby island. The family of the 4-year-old could not afford to fly to Barbados and save their child’s life. It’s a harsh reality that innocent lives are lost every day across the globe due to limited access to proper healthcare. But it doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking when you watch the events unfold before your eyes.
The incidents remind me of what medicine is about and how important it is to continue finding cures and treating new diseases so people can be treated for medical conditions they are born into. I have always loved kids, but this young boy’s case cemented my interest in being a pediatrician.
Failure was not an option.
Life in Grenada is undoubtedly different, but I also have to level my expectations about schooling. While Caribbean schools accept more students than U.S. medical schools, they also make their exams very difficult. While most schools only require students to pass their exams, SGU mandates you have a specific GPA. Since our grades were mostly based on exams, this meant performing poorly on a single exam would lead you to fail a class and get kicked out of school. I wasn’t naive: I knew medical school was going to be hard. This fear made me spend every minute I had studying as hard as I could for my classes. It wasn’t easy being so far away from my friends and family, but my ambition kept pushing me to work hard mentally. Knowing everything I know now about what medical school is like in Grenada, I often ask myself the same question of if I’d do this again. The answer is always yes.
Grenada truly changed me for the better — both as a person and as a doctor.
It also made me a stronger individual. Being far away from home made me more independent. And, of course, Grenada allowed me the opportunity to become a doctor. This May, I started my third year of medical school entailing clinical rotations in hospitals. My first rotation was surgery— I just finished it this week — and it was far from glamorous: I showed up at the hospital at 4:00 a.m. every morning, would get yelled at if anything was not up to par, did not get paid for my 120-hour work week and did not receive any usual benefits.
I was still held responsible for taking and passing exams. In this context, it’s easy to get jealous of other careers that offer minimum wage, overtime, set hours and higher pay for overnight shifts. But if you’re in the medical field for the right reasons, you know the feeling of fulfillment when you put on your white coat and are able to potentially save someone’s life. That feeling drives me to work as hard as I can to continue making a difference.