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A Worldview of Medicine

A Worldview of Medicine Shaped by Alaska, Mali and the Bronx

The boy came running across the field and shouted "k'I ka na. Abadou ma kene de!" Come, Abadou is sick! The young American walking behind the plow quickly unhooked the bulls and hurried to see what was wrong with his friend Abadou. It turned out he had pesticide poisoning and died three days later. Abadou's American friend was Kevin O'Laughlin, now a first-year medical student at Einstein, who at the time, was a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote village of 700 inhabitants in Mali, West Africa. While there, Mr. O'Laughlin implemented health projects, such as training Malians to install deep well-water pump systems, putting in engineered latrines and building and staffing a new maternity clinic.

First-year student Kevin O’Laughlin
First-year student Kevin O’Laughlin
"Abadou's story affected me in many respects, and embodies why medicine is my passion," said Mr. O'Laughlin. "Organophosphates had been sprayed on a nonfood crop without protective equipment and training. Frustrated that I could do little as a healthcare worker to save his life, I established a pesticide workshop to help prevent other unnecessary deaths. But I wished I could have done more for Abadou. For most of my third year in Africa I'd been shadowing the doctor in a neighboring village's clinic, absorbing all the medical knowledge I could, but it was clear that I needed to know much more."

Also while in Mali, he and two of his Peace Corps friends were in a serious accident. His friends were killed and Mr. O'Laughlin sustained a third-degree burn. He spent three days in a hospital in the capital Bamako, then was flown to a hospital in Washington, D.C., where he spent another two-and-a-half weeks. "This experience really brought home to me the huge disparities between the healthcare systems of a developing country and the first world," he recalled. "I believe the care I received in D.C. should be available to everyone, regardless of where they live, and this is part of my motivation for becoming a physician."

He first became interested in medicine through investigating ways to improve his parents' quality of life as they battled serious health problems, including cancer and a debilitating autoimmune disease. His interest broadened when he was working in rural American towns where healthcare was inadequate and realized he could be of real use, while still enjoying the cultures of fishing and farming he'd gone there to do.

The Janet G, a fishing boat that Mr. O’Laughlin worked on, in Alaska’s Eliza Harbor
The Janet G, a fishing boat that Mr. O’Laughlin worked on, in Alaska’s Eliza Harbor
Over four summers, Mr. O'Laughlin worked commercial fishing for salmon and crab on the Janet G., a 56-foot boat out of Petersburg in southwest Alaska. His 20-hour days included working on the deck and cooking for the crew. "The health inequalities among the 3,000 people in this quaint town were striking," he said. "Obesity, diabetes, and alcoholism were rampant in town, yet many fishermen were at the other extreme because of their active, healthier lifestyles doing physical work every day and eating salmon, crab, and halibut every night for dinner."

"Einstein was a natural choice for my medical training," Mr. O'Laughlin noted, "because it has a serious commitment to serving the underserved, not just locally here in the Bronx, but also abroad. That fits with my strong desire to reduce disparities in medical care.

"There are so many programs to get involved in the community here, and to travel overseas for research or clinical experiences. I also appreciate the huge amount of research done on campus, and the opportunity to expand our research skills that we hopefully can take with us to clinical practice."

Mr. O’Laughlin with local children in the Mali community where he worked as a Peace Corps volunteer
Mr. O’Laughlin with local children in the Mali community where he worked as a Peace Corps volunteer
He added, "Another influence was Jonathan Kozol's Amazing Grace, which I read 10 years ago. His insights into poverty in the South Bronx had a profound effect on my worldview, and made the idea of coming to the Bronx to study medicine very appealing."

Ultimately, Mr. O'Laughlin hopes to combine medicine and public health in his career. "I'm very interested in policy, since major risk factors for disease are commonly socioeconomic ones," he said. "Practicing medicine is my primary goal, though, so I hope to learn how to successfully integrate public health issues into my practice, by advocating for patients or even writing or critiquing policy."

He continued, "Medicine is only part of what makes a community healthy, but my work in the rural Malian clinic convinced me that it's the part that intrigues me the most. That's where I learned about the many non-biological factors affecting health outcomes and the cultural prejudices that can exacerbate these inequalities. I want to work on social and food justice in a healthcare context, but I am most humbled and challenged by the hands-on practice of medicine."

Posted on: Thursday, October 06, 2011