Wichita to train doctors for work in Third World


The soldier in Rwanda came to the hospital with a gunshot wound from an AK-47.

The doctor available that day, Todd Stephens, grew up in Minneola and figured he’d received a solid education in family practice medicine in his home state. But he wasn’t a surgeon. This man needed surgery or he could die.

Doctors across America volunteer their services overseas in developing countries. But many find they are ill-equipped for ailments that may get a cursory glance in U.S. medical schools, but are daily occurrences in these countries.

A new program at Via Christi Family Medicine will be the first of its kind in the nation to offer structured training for these doctors. The International Family Medicine Fellowship will begin this summer, backed by initial financing from Wichita business developer Jack DeBoer.

Now, most doctors must do what Stephens did.

He did his best to remember a procedure he had once watched.

“I really didn’t even have a textbook for this,” he said. “It would have been a horrendous surgery for a surgeon. But I was the only one there.”

Stephens said a prayer, then performed the surgery. It lasted more than three hours as he worked around a blasted spleen and repaired a dozen holes in the man’s intestine.

“We pray a lot, and I mean that in a real sense,” Stephens said. “We believe in the power of prayer, because we are constantly pushed to our limits in so many ways. We believe God helps us in cases like that.”

Stephens began looking for specialized training in 1994, before he practiced two years in Kenya and four years in Rwanda.

While there are separate programs touching on some aspects of international medicine, he found no formal training program.

After returning to Wichita, he was approached by eight resident doctors who also had learned on the job. Together, they had served 20 rotations in countries including Nigeria, Guatemala, Romania, Belize, India and Russia.

“I’ve sort of had this on my heart since 1994, when I was in the same boat as these guys,” Stephens said.

Within two years, he and the residents put together a program that now has caught the attention of groups such as the American Academy of Family Physicians and the Christian Medical and Dental Association.

Dan Ostergaard, the academy’s vice president of international and interprofessional activities, said he hopes the Via Christi program can be replicated across the country.

Wichita and the world

Doctors in training go through a three-year residency program. The international fellowship would add a fourth year of study.

It will combine other training, including classes at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. It will train family practice doctors beyond what they would normally receive in public health, surgery, trauma, anesthesia, radiology and tropical diseases.

Doctors from across the city have volunteered time and money to the International Family Medicine Fellowship.

“There are physicians in almost every specialty who have come forward,” said Richard Leu, director of the Via Christi Family Medicine Residency program.

But the program took hold when Jack DeBoer, a hotelier and managing partner of WaterWalk, gave $126,000 to fund the first year’s pilot program, beginning in June.

“It took us about three minutes to make the decision,” DeBoer said.

DeBoer knew the challenges the doctors faced. He’d seen the same in his visits to Burma, working with the World Vision Christian relief networks.

“I’ve been to a lot of those places all over the world and seen the need,” he said. “They’ve figured out how to give young doctors, who have a heart to make a difference in the world, a much broader base of medical knowledge, so they can function in an environment where they’re facing everything.”

DeBoer’s donation allowed the program to apply more than $100,000 toward the second year. The doctors eventually hope to raise money to establish an endowment to continue the work.

Residents will spend part of their time in the U.S., including in Wichita, and part of it overseas working under an attending physician.

“The program at Via Christi, in my view, has the right mix of public health, tropical medicine and other course work that helps in the sparse resources of the developing world,” said the academy’s Ostergaard.

The program is already creating a buzz across the country.

“I’m getting an e-mail every week from a potential fellow in another part of the country, interested in this training,” Stephens said. “People are seeking this. It really meets a need.”

Reach Ron Sylvester at 316-268-6514 or rsylvester@wichitaeagle.com.

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