From her textbooks to real life practice, Gretell Gomez called her experience on the USNS Comfort “a thousand percent worth it.”
Gretell and some of her fellow classmates were able to observe surgeries taking place on the ship, and participated in numbing a patient and analyzing X-rays with Lt. Commander Chad Baarson, DO, an interventional radiologist.
"We got the opportunity to take it from the books to real-life practice."
Dr. Baarson, for his part, was impressed. “I think [RUSM students] are very sharp, very smart,” he said. “Compared to other medical school students I’ve worked with before, I was impressed—they seem locked on and very interested to learn.”
Gretell and the other students onboard the ship proved no different from Dr. Baarson's assessment.
The best part for me was getting to sit down and get advice from the physicians. Dr. Baarson did the scan (X-ray) and he ran through the whole process as if we were actually the radiologists. First-year medical students don't get this type of clinical exposure. We're in a place that, thankfully, makes a big deal about it.
Gretell even had the opportunity to discuss what lies ahead for her after Dominica.
“We spent the whole time learning from [Dr. Baarson]. We talked about residencies, hospitals that are good for rotations, and different fellowship options. It was a great experience,” she said, admitting she had never thought of volunteering with the military as a physician before the Comfort.
Now, Gretell sees things differently.
I think it just gives you a different perspective on what we’re doing, and where we’re headed. The pros and cons of coming to a Caribbean medical school are always argued about, but something that RUSM gives us by being here is having the medical mission field literally in our own backyard.
Vignesh Suriyaprakash boarded the USNS Comfort eager to work with real patients, and his experience could be boiled down to one word: unique.
I’ve got to say that was one of the best, unique experiences I’ve ever had. I was able to shadow the cardiologist, the orthopedists, and the oral surgeons. The doctors were all very helpful about telling us about unique syndromes and diseases. We also learned how we should treat patients in terms of bedside manner.
What's more, Vignesh got to learn what he referred to as some "really cool" techniques. "I learned how to really do an EKG for the first time," he said.
Vignesh, along with classmates Shoma Sanyal and Britzy Joseph (see below), were able to lend the physicians onboard a hand when it came to the locals, too.
“Some of the patients we had already seen through our time at RUSM, so they saw us as one of them,” said Britzy. “We acted as mediator between locals and the US.”
“In that sense, we were able to give them little lessons in cultural competency for the people of Dominica,” Shoma added. “They didn’t know that you could touch [patients’] shoulders to make them feel good, where people might be a little uncomfortable about that in the states.”
After seeing a variety of patients with diagnoses like a cleft palate, cerebral palsy, and even Trecher Collins Syndrome, Vignesh and his classmates were further inspired for the future.
These people enjoy what they’re doing—it made me excited because I thought this could be me in a few years. After this visit, I will probably look into how I can get aboard a humanitarian mission.
When the USNS Comfort docked in Dominica, Shoma Sanyal made the most of her chance help Navy physicians with presurgical screenings onboard.
I got to help screen the surgeons' patients…. we asked [the patients] why they were here, and they would show us what they wanted. In some cases, it was the removal of a cyst or tumor. The surgeon would decide whether it was excisable and if the ship had the means to get the surgery done without having any complications later on.
Shoma boarded the ship hoping to gain more clinical experience with patients, but she left with much more than that: Inspiration. A deeper understanding of what it means to be a physician. A unique international experience.
It was really inspiring to me, meeting people who served our country in times of war and in times where they were doing humanitarian missions like this. It was incredible to see them use their skills and years of training for the calling of medicine.
Shoma feels that calling, too. And looking forward, she knows it will be her motivation as she begins her career.
You’re going to get that call at 3 a.m. and there’s a greater part of you that knows it’s not necessarily your duty, but your calling, to go in and help. And if someone needs you [for] your years of training—something you can offer in that moment—it becomes bigger than you.
And she's forever grateful for this experience.
I’m so honored and fortunate to have had [this opportunity]. I’m forever grateful to Ross University [School of Medicine] for that. I don’t think you would get that with any other medical school, anywhere else. It’s truly the international experience.
At least, that’s how third-semester Ron Crandall felt when he volunteered for the USNS Comfort medical mission. He saw it as an opportunity to sharpen his clinical skills, and it was something he couldn’t pass up.
Monday was really good for focusing on developing a weakness that you felt you had. My weakness was ophthalmology.
On the first day aboard the ship, Ron was able to do peripheral retinal exams, utilize high-tech diagnostic equipment he had never encountered before, and get direct coaching from the ophthalmologist on staff.
I probably went through 30 patients. After [the doctor] gave a brief patient interview and his examination, I would jump in and do my examination while he was doing his documentation. He'd challenge me to make a diagnosis for that patient, then he'd check it, review it, and coach me and give me feedback while he was writing.
Ron found his subsequent days of the medical mission equally rewarding, but for different reasons. During the next few days, Ron was able to fully immerse himself in the empathetic side of being a physician. The Comfort and its physicians were only in Dominica for a limited time, and it bothered him on a deeper level that there just wasn't enough time to help patients with more chronic conditions, like hypertension or diabetes. "It was hard on the [Navy] doctors, too," Ron said. "It was interesting watching how different people dealt with that."
From a humanitarian side, it’s really difficult when you just can't help [the patients]. Maybe they’re already on three or four medications, maybe they’ve been trying to manage diabetes or hypertension for many years. We can really only treat acutes, so it makes you focus on where you can help.
So when a patient came in with significant knee pain, Ron realized this patient could be helped, then and there.
This is an example of a young man that could hardly walk down the stairs, and we could make a huge impact.
His impact came in the form of range of motion exercises that would allow the patient to begin to rehab his knee. And that made Ron feel like he truly made a difference. "That was a super helpful moment," Ron said. "He didn't even know about range of motion exercises, or that they could help."
From an educational standpoint, there’s huge benefit to applying knowledge. I feel like [with lectures], you get so much knowledge, but it comes so quickly that you can’t apply it. You try to apply it on the exams, but exams are still written. The person is not in front of you. But being able to apply that knowlege with a patient, and being able to talk to a doctor who's right next to you—you can learn tons.
Having worked in the emergency room (ER) before joining RUSM, she had the opportunity to observe ER doctors for nearly 10 years—so she had a good idea of what to expect when volunteering with the USNS Comfort. But there were also conditions Tyajean didn’t expect, and considered it an eye-opening experience.
We saw a little girl with some pretty significant congenital abnormalities, and that was kind of sad. The mom flat out said she knew that she had hydrocephalus (swelling on the brain) in utero, but didn’t know what that meant.
Tyajean said it brought the importance of patient education to light. “Someone’s lack of doing that has changed these people’s lives forever.”
Ensuring her patients will receive the best care when she becomes a practicing physician, Tyajean relies on her ability to empathize.
My mom has recently had a lot of medical conditions. I know the medical jargon can be difficult sometimes, so my sister and I help her to understand. So when I sit down with a patient, I pretend that person is my mom—that I need to help that person understand the implications something can have both immediately and in the future. This is the best way for patients to make educated decisions regarding their health.
For Tyajean, the opportunity to educate patients is paramount, and being able to educate herself at the same time is an added bonus.
"I value the opportunity to be able to learn, especially from different sources,” she said, admitting she skipped her lunch to take advantage of that opportunity. “I think that by default, RUSM gives you those things.”
“I think the operation that they have here is really amazing,” Ricardo said. “it’s a very well-coordinated effort. [The doctors] are seeing patients every fifteen minutes. Every single patient at these clinics get a diagnosis and will get some kind of treatment for their condition on the spot.”
Ricardo further explained that in Dominica, the healthcare system is preventative, so treatment for more intricate conditions doesn’t take priority because it requires sophisticated equipment and cannot be diagnosed on a clinical basis. But the staff on the Comfort did just that.
“I’m impressed with how they had all these high-tech machines that they got here so quickly,” Marisa said, looking carefully at the imaging equipment in front of her, Ricardo, and Dr. Baarson, who staffed that particular clinic.
My dad is an interventional radiologist, and I’m learning a lot more here.
Marisa sees being part of RUSM and living in Dominica as an advantage.
[US students] don’t get to have this great opportunity to work with the US Navy. I’m kind of in shock. I know now what I should be spotting when I’m looking for certain diseases, and why they order certain types of X-rays. I’m very happy I signed up.
Marisa isn’t the only one coming away from the experience with newfound hands-on knowledge. Ricardo was happy to jump right in on interviewing patients with the physician he was shadowing.
“He just let me walk in, and said you do the interview, if I need to jump in, I’ll just ask whatever questions I find relevant,” he recalled. “I also got to see how to set up an EKG, and explained the volumes of the heart, how to measure them, and how to see an echocardiogram.”
I feel amazing.
We get to witness actual surgeries, screenings, and procedures. These are the things you have to wait until fourth or fifth semester of medical school to really experience, and I wanted to get that early exposure.
Odira wasn’t disappointed—she had the chance to watch her lecture material unfold in real life situations.
I was in the general health department, and we went over mostly gastrointestinal (GI) stuff, and it was really cool because we just finished with GI last week in classrooms. It’s really cool to know that all the time spent in lecture…is because we actually need to know this stuff, because it’s actually out there in the real world.
I like the fact there was freedom. Wherever you wanted to go, you could. You could experience exactly what you find interesting, and see the different cases in each field.
Britzy even got the chance to observe patients with rare diagnoses and diseases.
It’s really cool when you see all these lecture slides, and you see only 1% of the population has this, or only 5% has that, and you read the slides about it and you never think you’re going to see it. But all those rare things were actually here.
While her main focus was interacting with patients and observing procedures, Britzy also got to observe how each physician handled each patient—giving her an insight to her own future.
Besides the medical aspect, you got to see the different styles that every doctor has and what you’d like to incorporate in your own style. You see themselves in your shoes. People will be watching us, and learning from us.
I just really enjoy volunteering. I volunteered on a medical mission in Guyana [in the past] and I figured this would be a great experience for me.
In addition to developing her knowledge and skills she’s acquired over the last few years, Brittany has other aspirations for her medical career.
I want to have my own girls group where I can teach young ladies about self esteem and their bodies—it’s something definitely lacking in young girls.
And with that goal, coupled with an interested in working as an OB/GYN, Brittany made the most out of her volunteer experience with the US Navy.
I just wanted to get more of a view of what it’s like to be working as an OB/GYN an urology—two specialties I’m interested in, so I wanted to see how they actually operate. I got to see some pelvic exams and other screenings, and the doctors were really helpful.