Thomas Jefferson University's Jeff Health (Helping Africans Link to Health) Hosts Medical Students from Rwanda
For almost ten years students and faculty from Thomas Jefferson University, including students from Jefferson Medical College (JMC) and the Schools of Nursing, Population Health and Health Professions, have traveled to Rwanda to understand the culture and provide assistance with the healthcare needs of the people of the village of Rugerero, a genocide-survivor village in Northwest Rwanda. Currently three Rwandan medical students are in Philadelphia to learn from Jefferson physicians and share the experience of being a medical student with their American counterparts.
The Rugerero Survivors Village was built as a safe haven, a temporary home, for the thousands of Rwandans who had fled to the Congo to escape the genocide in early 1990s. The Village has grown and begun to prosper in the years since.
Since 2005 a total of 45 medical, nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and population health students from Jefferson have traveled to Rugerero and the rural community of Akarambi, north of the capital city of Kigali, to do their part in aiding the health needs of the Rwandan people. Approximately 15 students from the National University of Rwanda School of Medicine have come to Philadelphia to participate in two months of third and fourth year medical training at Jefferson Medical College and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital since 2006.
Both groups benefit from the experience.
“The program exposes Rwandan medical students to intensive training beyond what is offered in Rwanda; and helps our students interested in careers in family medicine gain exposure to the health issues in other parts of the world,” says James Plumb, MD, MPH, professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine, co-director of the Center for Urban Health at Jefferson and faculty liaison for the program.
Jefferson students participate in clinical clerkships at the National University of Rwanda’s Medical School, working in the field with the people of Rugerero and Akarambi. The Rwandan students rotate through clinical instruction in Family Medicine and Pediatrics. They also receive classroom training through the "College within The College" (CwiC) track at JMC, allowing them access to population health courses as medical college students.
“This has our students think differently about the tremendous impact a primary care physician can have on the trajectory of a family, a village, or a country; and offers essential clinical and public health education and skills the Rwandan students can take home with them,” says Plumb.
The major health issues the people of Rwanda currently face are largely preventable: malnutrition, hookworm from walking barefoot on contaminated soil, clean and sanitary water, hand hygiene, malaria and HIV/AIDS.
“Starches are the most common foods because they make people feel full, but a diet of rice and potatoes can lead to deficiencies in iron and Vitamin A, among other important vitamins and minerals,” observed second year medical student Ryan Cobb, who traveled to Rwanda last July. Cobb helped bring the “kitchen gardens” program to Rugerero, giving families access to seeds to plant and grow fruits and vegetables for their own consumption.
Students Ashlyn Sakona and Elisabeth Collins worked closely with families at a nutrition clinic to promote healthy eating habits and healthy lifestyle education.
Over eight years of travel to Rugereo and three years in Akarambi, Jefferson students have developed programs including the Health and Hygiene Train-the-Trainer program, provided training on hand-washing and disease transmission; examined and provided nutritional assessments for the adults and children of Rugerero; taught HIV/AIDS education; and linked the village to medical students through the Rwanda Village Concept Project, an international student-run project, with a mission to improve the living standards in a Rwandan community by using simple and low-cost methods and to develop the capabilities of the students in participatory development work.
The association with Rwanda arose out of a partnership with Barefoot Artists, an organization working with poor communities around the globe to help people heal and thrive through self-expression and action.
“The people of Rwanda are resilient,” remarked Cobb. Genocide left the country in ruin, with many people without homes and children orphaned. HIV and AIDS were rampant as were debilitating physical deformities among the population remaining. With help from Jefferson University students and faculty, and the country’s own medical students who will impart their education on their families and community, “Rwanda is teaching us all a lesson as the country gets back on its feet, quite literally, with some assistance with health education and promotion.”
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