Reflections from Thomonde, Haiti: Melissa Hite

By Melissa Hite

Joining Service Learners International (SLI) as a first year in medical school was not an easy decision, as there were many enticing opportunities for that “last summer of life”; however, I valued its foundation as a student-led organization that allowed a deeper level of involvement in the trip planning and also allowed continuity in a global project for the duration of medical school. 

My time as a member of SLI has been filled with some of the most important experiences of my life, be it the minutia that comes with organizing 20+ people travelling to a developing country, to the larger theme of supporting group sustainability and long-term goals.  I imagine others would agree, the first two years of medical school, with most of your time spent with your face in a book, can be disenchanting, and it’s easy to lose sight of why you ever wanted to be a doctor. 

But through my work with SLI, I’ve been steadily reassured that this is where I’m supposed to be, this is what being a doctor is all about.  I’ve benefited greatly from the relationships I’ve formed with others in SLI, and it is my hope that they will continue past medical school and throughout my career.

This year, I traveled back to Thomonde, Haiti with SLI for my third and final time as a medical student and for the second year as director of SLI.  Over the three years, I’ve grown from a more passive role as a pre-clinical student into a very active role as Director.  During the first year, I was amazed at the role of clinical students as mentors for the pre-clinicals, as well as their role in the curriculum of SLI. 

I took over the role of Director as a second year pre-clinical student, and looking back, while not for lack of effort or dedication, I believe I could not truly imagine the potential for enhanced learning opportunities for students while in Haiti.  How could I improve the educational experience when I myself was a beginner in the great odyssey of medical education?  After that second trip, however, the room for further development of in-country curriculum was not lost on other students or me, and I began brainstorming how SLI could improve.  

As my third year went on and I gained more clinical experience, I began to understand the role of clinical students in the great hierarchy of medical education and saw areas where we could benefit from peer teaching and more structured group discussions. 

I reached out to the group to see how well received my proposals were, and overall, I was very excited about the interest in the various projects.  Clinical students jumped on board to plan and lead afternoon learning sessions, both clinical and pre-clinical students participated in the ethics online course and end-of-trip discussion, and with the leadership of one clinical student, a very productive and interactive meeting was held between the group and several Project Medishare Community Health Agents. 

From providing clinical students a more active role in teaching outside of daily clinic, to discussing ethical dilemmas and other challenges that SLI faces while in Haiti, I truly believe that students’ education and overall trip experiences benefited.

Not only were we able to provide care to almost 300 Haitians in the course of 4 clinic days, practice our physical exam skills and patient presentations, and absorb an incredible amount of medical knowledge from attendings and other students alike, but also, a framework was set for developing a more ethically-aware and sustainable curriculum for SLI.  It is with this enhanced education and the groups’ efforts in following through with the proposal, that I feel SLI can foster the growth of students into culturally-sensitive, global-thinkers who better understand how to maximize their roles within their respective communities and careers.     

Five years ago when SLI was first starting, a constitution was written with a clear vision of its purpose and future in mind; however, the means to carrying out this vision and maintaining continuity was up to future generations.  It is my hope that with my work as Director, supported by a dedicated group of students, faculty, and the CGH, we have further developed a foundation for the overarching theme of SLI as an invaluable educational experience for students and physicians, while also supporting the goal of Project Medishare to provide sustainable, quality health care to the people of the Haitian Central Plateau.

Melissa Hite is a fourth year medical student.