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August 2009 Issue

Medical student Tom Sweets saws off a patient’s cast while working at a Kenyan clinic.
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African Trip Offers an 'Adventurous' Side to Med Education

Published August 2009

For most of us, a trip to Africa would mean exciting adventures, safaris, hikes through the rainforest and experimenting with new types of food. For fourth-year UC medical student Tom Sweets, his trip to Africa was the learning experience of a lifetime.
Sweets returned recently from a two-month rotation in orthopedics at a hospital in Kenya. He organized the trip on his own, but did get credit at UC for one month of work in Africa. 

“This was a personal goal for me,” he says. “I feel very strongly that medicine is a service profession and we need to serve those in need. And people in Africa are in a lot more need than we are.”

Sweets worked on the general surgery service and in orthopedics during his time in Kenya. He worked with others to take care of numerous cases of severe orthopedic trauma.

“The amount of broken bones and severe injuries I saw there just boggles my mind,” he says, adding that there are many such cases due in part to the conditions of the roads and the mountainous environment. “The amount of work over there is overwhelming,” he says.

“This type of experience is unparalleled because they need you. They need your help, so you learn a tremendous amount.”

Sweets worked at the local hospital, which he says was able to give relatively high-quality care despite its lack of resources and technology, along with a third-year resident and a fellow from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, a graduate of the Mayo Clinic orthopedic surgery residency program and a Kenyan intern. 

“The lack of resources in Kenya made me appreciate a lot of the technology we take for granted here,” he says. “I’ll never take those things for granted again. Never.”

Sweets’ most valuable experience, he says, was working with the patients.

“I really just love these people. They touched my heart,” says Sweets.  “I developed a special bond with a lot of the patients, and it was amazing to see them get better.”

Sweets’ work in Kenya has reinforced his love of orthopedics and his desire to do something similar in the future. 

Later this month, Sweets will be attending an annual conference held by the Surgical Implant Generation Network, a Richland, Wash., organization he learned about and worked with while in Kenya that donates orthopedic hardware to hospitals in developing nations.

Sweets clearly has a passion for his work and for helping people.

“I love orthopedics,” he says. “I love everything about it. I love the bones. I love the muscles. I love working with the patients.” 

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