WHEN ROBERT FROST WROTE about the road less traveled, I am convinced he was thinking of the dirt path leading to Basma, a tiny village in the West African country of Burkina-Faso, where the sight of a motorized vehicle is the talk of the town. From 1995 to 1998, I served in Basma as a community health development worker with the United States Peace Corps a road in my life that has, indeed, made all the difference.
Why did I insist on deferring medical school to live in the obscure country of Burkina-Faso? Hot, flat, and famously poor, a capital city named Ouagadougou seemed an unworthy destination in the eyes of my family and friends. But I seized the opportunity to learn about medicine on a human level beneath technology and bureaucracy before forging ahead with formal medical education. After three months of intensive Peace Corps training in local language and community health, I was delivered to my post in the village of Basma, a remote village of 1500 inhabitants located 100 km north of Ouagadougou.
My home in Basma was a round, mud-brick hut on the grounds of the primary care clinic, nestled between hospital rooms and the maternity ward. Supervised by three Burkinabé nurses, I assisted each day with clinical procedures and traveled to neighboring villages to conduct childhood vaccinations. Collaborating with village leaders, my primary role was to plan and implement health education programs focusing on the following themes: Prevention of malnutrition and dehydration; Educating families about the vaccination schedule for communicable diseases; Control and prevention of Guinea Worm disease; and Construction of latrines in family compounds to improve the health and hygiene of the village. My experience in Burkina-Faso profoundly impacted my professional development, introducing me to the pathology of infectious diseases, clinical aspects of maternal and child health, public health policy in a real-world setting, and primary health care at the grassroots level.
But to describe my three years in Basma purely in medical terms would give an incomplete impression of my life there, for I lived my most memorable moments outside the clinic. Far removed from the world of the urgent fax, I renewed my appreciation for correspondence in the old-fashioned way. I learned to conserve AA batteries by manually rewinding cassette tapes with a ballpoint pen. As an apprentice to the village mid-wife, I was taught the importance of chasing chickens, goats, and pigs out of the room while women are giving birth. I lived and worked with people who have never heard of the United States of America and who have never considered the possibility that the earth isnt flat. Sipping millet beer with village friends under African skies, I was asked questions like, Can you see the moon in your country? I made bricks from the earth and built my own house with them, and I peacefully cohabitated with bats, scorpions, and porcupines. Above all, I encountered a genuine goodness and integrity in people whom I will never forget. Warm and lively, with an enviable sense of humor and a dignified sense of who they are, the people of Burkina-Faso sustain a moral wealth that makes economic poverty seem insignificant.
When I first received my invitation to live and work in Africa, I was intimidated by melodramatic, overstated speculations of friends and family who said that the experience would change my life, that I would be a different person when I returned home. Fortunately I can report that I am very much the same person whom I was before I left. But undeniably, something in me is different.
My exposure to patients and procedures in Burkina-Faso broadened my perspective of medicine on a global level. Now a medical student, in my study of immunology and pathology I remember patients in Basma who died from malaria and meningitis, and I have insight into psychosocial factors that can influence pathology of those diseases. Health care policy debates surround the hospitals where I conduct my clinical rotations, and my opinions on universal health care are informed by personal recollections of the socialized medical system of the developing world. In my formal acquisition of physical diagnosis and medical interviewing, I am grounded by practical skills that were part of my daily routine in the village clinic suturing wounds, measuring vital signs, administering vaccinations, conducting prenatal consultations. My work in Basma certainly provided me with a solid foundation from which to develop my career as a physician.
But it is the interpersonal, non-medical aspects of my experience in Burkina-Faso that I find most valuable in my professional journey to become a physician. Confined by cultural and linguistic barriers, I adapted to life in Basma and found common ground with people whose world is radically different from my own. Once a total stranger, with time I became a trusted friend to families in the village of Basma. As a medical student, I often find myself revisiting that feeling as I learn to provide comfort and support to patients who face the foreign experience of illness and disease. As I integrate my experience in Africa with my study and practice of medicine, I carry these memories and lessons with me into the classrooms and clinics that will fill my life for years to come.
Glen Davis graduated from Hamilton College in New York as a comparative literature major. After college he worked as a clinical research assistant in the Department of Psychiatry at St. Vincent's Hospital & Medical Center in New York City, and later in the Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. In Burkina-Faso he worked as a health education volunteer and stayed on during 1998 as a Regional Peace Corp Volunteer Leader in the town of Kaya. Glen returned to Burkina Faso during the summer of 2000 to work for three months in the Department of Psychiatry at the Hospital National Yalgado Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou. He is currently a 4th year medical student at Cornell University Medical College in New York City and plans to pursue residency training in psychiatry.