Joanna Kam and Robert Summey, married physicians who are alumni from the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM), recently left their home and medical practices and traveled from Philadelphia for more than 24 hours by plane and van halfway across the world to a rural medical clinic in Migori, Kenya.
Once there, they worked 16-hour days, seeing long lines of patients who have lacked basic health care and performing life-altering surgeries. The next day, they got up and did it again. All told during the 10-day trip, which included nearly four days of travel, their group treated 469 patients and performed 87 surgeries as part of Kenya Relief, an international nonprofit organization.
After they returned to the U.S. and their medical practices at Penn Medicine, weary from the journey, they were left with the invigorating feeling that they received as much as they gave.
“What you learn about yourself and what you learn about the practice of medicine and how other people live is so much more valuable than the care you provide,” Kam said. “If anything, we came out of this with a lot more valuable experiences.”
“We worked hard and we helped a lot of people, but the value for us was tremendous as well,” Summey added.
Kam and Summey began at VTCSOM as part of the school’s second class in 2011. While the school was still evolving to what it has become now, there were key aspects of the community mission that attracted them to it.
“We both had an interest in service prior to medical school and that element was prominent at VTCSOM,” said Summey. “It was nice that the school integrated opportunities to pursue acts of service, which is something we are still actively doing both locally and in a larger form like this trip.”
Kam, who was the first VTCSOM graduate to match in an otolaryngology residency, learned about Kenya Relief through a fellow resident at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. The organization was founded out of tragedy to make a positive difference in the world.
After seeing a Christian Children’s Fund commercial in 1998, 16-year-old Brittney James decided she wanted to sponsor a young Kenyan boy named Newton. For three years she diligently worked and made monthly scholarship payments, hoping to one day visit Newton in Kenya. In 2001, though, Brittney was tragically found dead at her off-campus college apartment in Asheville, North Carolina.
Steve James was inspired to honor his daughter and travel from his hometown of Cullman, Alabama, to locate Newton in Kenya. He managed to meet the child and learn from his family of the remarkable impact from Brittney’s support. James, a nurse anesthetist, vowed to use his gifts to bring a legacy of hope to the impoverished area. The organization he founded, Kenya Relief, now operates an orphanage, a school and a medical clinic in southwestern Kenya. About 25 medical mission teams travel to the clinic per year and they have performed more than 6,000 low-cost surgeries since 2006.
“It really shows that one little girl and her passion for helping others can make such an amazing difference in this world,” said Elizabeth Studley, the vice chair of board of directors and medical mission team leader at Kenya Relief.
Kenya Relief is fund-raising for a 67-bed maternal child health clinic. While the U.S. maternal death rate is about 20 per 100,000 births, the death rate is about 360 in Kenya and rises to 700 in the more rural areas.
Studley, who has been on or led 24 trips with Kenya Relief, said that the organization has community health workers who travel to remote areas to tell residents about the types of medical services coming. She said patients travel from up to 16 hours away from other countries such as Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania to see the highly trained doctor volunteers. She lauded Kam and Summey for their commitment to treating as many patients as possible during their short time in country.
“They gave their all to those patients. The volume and stress level that is put upon team members is great,” she said. “Dr. Kam and Dr. Summey have this calmness and peace about them. The impact they have as a couple and as physicians is immeasurable.”
When they returned to the U.S., getting back to work the day after landing, Kam and Summey said they were left tired but inspired. Kam is an otolaryngologist, head, and neck surgeon with sub-specialization in facial plastic and reconstructive surgery. Summey practices internal medicine. They shared lessons from their trip with their hospital teams.
“Even though it was a very different environment than I’m practicing in normally, I learned a tremendous amount, and I’m carrying that over,” Summey said. “I feel like I’m very spoiled here as an academic hospitalist with a minimum of at least three residents helping me get things done. Over there, I was very much operating on my own, and it forced me to think about things in novel ways and find ways to be more efficient.”
Kam said it highlights how lucky she is at work at a well-equipped medical facility with a team of highly skilled individuals to assist with a surgery.
“Over there, I really had to consider what tools were available to get this operation done in a safe and efficient manner. What do you do if the power goes out for two minutes and you’re just standing there?” she said. “That first day in clinic, screening patients with no air conditioning, we were so uncomfortable! But people live like this every day and there was really nothing for us to complain about.”
They are not quite ready to begin planning their next trip to Kenya, but the VTCSOM alumni said they are dedicated to helping others throughout their medical journeys.
“As you get further and further out from medical school, there are more opportunities to serve. We are just looking to do what we can for others,” Summey said.