“Part of the reward was the challenge,” said Rachel Ross, a member of this year’s graduating class at Einstein. On June 3, 2010, reward came in the form of dual degrees, as she graduated from the College of Medicine with an M.D. and a Ph.D. — accomplishing a challenging endeavor that encompassed the past seven years.
Rachel Ross with Dr. Bailor Barrie, her Sierra
Leonean mentor and co-founder of GAF Completing the first stage of her medical and scientific training was not the challenge to which Dr. Ross was referring, however. Instead, she was discussing her experiences during the global health fellowship she completed in Sierra Leone between December 31, 2009 and February 28, 2010. It was during the fellowship — her first trip overseas for global health pursuits — that she took her medical education to a whole new level, as part of the Global Action Foundation’s (GAF) mission to lead social change in Sierra Leone through healthcare.
“GAF is a small nongovernmental organization [NGO] with a big heart and a lot of energy,” she explained.
Although the work involved roughing it, sweating a lot, and being “constantly surrounded by people, many of whom you may have difficulty relating to,” Dr. Ross fell in love with doing global health work and the Sierra Leoneans with whom she interacted within the NGO-run medical clinic.
“They are an incredible group," she said of her overseas colleagues and mentors. “In a place where taking advantage of people is easy, these individuals are exceptional in their dedication to their jobs and to the organization. I was really impressed. They want to do more, but they need help.”
Indeed, among the patients seeking treatment, most everyone had malaria, typhoid, a parasite, or combinations of all three, along with diseases also common in the U.S., such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and sexually transmitted diseases. To help care for these individuals, Dr. Ross worked with doctors at the severely understaffed government hospital in the Eastern province of Kono, on male and female wards, and at the GAF clinic serving patients from all over the province — all in the same day.
While assisting with the myriad needs of patients, Dr. Ross was able to see two patients with issues related to psychiatry, the field of practice she has chosen to pursue. She noted, “There was a 12-year-old boy who was hearing voices and couldn’t pay attention in school, and a 60-year-old woman who was suffering from depression. But most people in Sierra Leone don’t seek help for psychiatric problems, because there’s a stigma associated with them.”
At the clinic established by GAF to serve the
medical needs of the amputee communities Among her current goals is to diminish the stigma of mental illness. Toward achieving that, she will soon begin her psychiatry residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. When time permits, she also plans to return to Sierra Leone to volunteer her time.
She said, “I want to keep working in community outreach concerning various issues of treatment and prevention, as well as toward the de-stigmatization and organization of psychiatry as a branch of medicine practiced in Sierra Leone.”
Fortunately, the Rochester native has a track record of achieving her goals. The daughter of two lawyers, her dream of becoming a doctor began as a young child.
“I was sick a lot as a kid and my family spent a lot of time at my pediatrician’s office,” she said. “I think I learned as much from her in one year as I did from my fifth grade teachers, and I’ve always appreciated the role she played in my life. I was always full of questions and it seemed like my doctor always had an answer for them,” she recalled. “I aspire to be just like her.”
From Brighton High School to Cornell University, Dr. Ross worked to achieve her aspirations and came to Einstein for its combined M.D.-Ph.D. program. “It was exactly what I wanted it to be,” she said. “I was looking for research I wanted to do and people who would help me achieve it, and I found both.”
Among the influential people she met was first-year classmate Dan Kelly (Class of 2008), who co-founded GAF. The two started at Einstein together in 2003 and first discussed the possibility of her going to Sierra Leone when he returned from a yearlong trip there between 2006 and 2007.
Dr. Bailor Barrie (second from left) with other
members of the clinic staff In making the trip to Sierra Leone, Dr. Ross delivered a desperately needed ultrasound machine to the Kono district where Dr. Kelly has established a health clinic that serves the nation’s amputee communities. To aid the shipping of additional equipment needed at the clinic, Dr. Ross is currently helping to raise funds for GAF.
But equipment is just one of many important needs in the impoverished nation. After noting how many patients ignored simple recommendations, such as boiling water and using mosquito nets to prevent some of the diseases ubiquitous in their region, Dr. Ross believes education is equally important.
“I think that healthcare in Sierra Leone, like in the U.S., requires an overwhelming shift toward promotion of basic education and preventative medicine in a way that is accessible to people,” she said. “And we need better communication and face time between different cultures, since that will improve healthcare, too.”
She continued, “But it will require a lot of coordinated effort and a lot of cultural education.”
In spite of these and other challenges ahead, Dr. Ross remains optimistic. “While I was in Sierra Leone, I met a lot of people with really good ideas, both in the government and the international NGO world,” she said. “I think that there is a new wave to make aid work more self-sustainable and less culturally imperialistic, and I look forward to being a part of it.”
Posted on: Tuesday, June 01, 2010