Future Doctors, Without Borders

A single course at Rutgers can set you on a path to your future. Seniors Ashley Wenke and Kenny Disbrow plan to become physicians, and each cites an influential class that shaped their vision of a career in medicine.

Ashley Wenke was just beginning her junior year at Rutgers when she began volunteering at an infusion facility where her aunt was receiving chemotherapy treatment. At the time, Ashley was majoring in environmental science in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS) at Rutgers–New Brunswick. While volunteering at the center, she thought fleetingly about a future in medicine. Then in the spring, Ashley enrolled in “Systems Physiology,” taught by School of Arts and Sciences professor of cell biology and neuroscience Gary Merrill. “I did it for purely academic reasons; the material interested me,” Ashley says. “I had no idea how it would coincide with my volunteer work and that it would spark a passion for medicine.”

The material was difficult, but Professor Merrill carefully explained it. I loved that he challenged me as a student. He expected us to rise to the occasion.

Ashley Wenke

It’s a premed course that focuses on body systems—skeletal, muscle, cardiovascular, respiratory, etc. “People told me not to take it because it’s hard, but I did very well. The material was difficult, but Professor Merrill carefully explained it. I loved that he challenged me as a student. He expected us to rise to the occasion. Professor Merrill would say, ‘when you’re in medical school, you’ll learn more about such and such,’ and after taking his course, I knew I wanted to switch gears.”

Ashley changed her major to biological sciences with an environmental science minor. And she’s still graduating on time, having taken summer courses that put her ahead in her studies.

An Eye-Opening Experience in Nicaragua

Kenny Disbrow, a SEBS public health major, always liked science and physiology. “I played football and ran track in high school and was interested in how the human body works.” He had been considering a medical career when the course “International Public Health,” taught by Elizabeth Amaya-Fernandez, “brought me to Nicaragua”—an experience Kenny says “solidified my wanting to be a doctor.”

Amaya-Fernandez, a health education specialist who focuses on alcohol and drug awareness with Rutgers Health Services’ Health Outreach, Promotion, and Education program, told the class about an Alternative Spring Break program in Nicaragua. Then a sophomore, Kenny spent spring break volunteering at Los Quinchos, “a program that takes mistreated or homeless Nicaraguan children off the streets. Many of the patients, ages 3 to 19, were addicted to inhalants.

“In Los Quinchos,” Kenny recalls, “a kid saw me bandaging cuts on another boy’s legs. He asked me to look at his back. He had a severe skin irritation that looked infected. Unfortunately, I could not do anything about it. I told him in English that when I’m a doctor, I will come back. Although he did not understand me, he was content. That scene still sticks with me today.” Kenny says he will return to Los Quinchos to volunteer and “if the young boy is still with the program, I will see him again. He was 7 years old when I met him and the program typically raises kids until they are 18 to 20.”

A landfill dump in Managua, NicaraguaKenny also visited La Chureca, a landfill dump in Managua, Nicaragua, populated by multiple generations of families. “The idea of hope is scarce there,” Kenny says. “Even more alarming, over 50 percent of the population living in the dump were children.” For Kenny, Nicaragua was “an eye opener. I realized how we take our opportunities for granted in the U.S. We live in one of the few places where you can be born into extreme poverty and work your way out of it. It really put things into perspective for me.”

From New Jersey to Oaxaca, Mexico

Ashley’s and Kenny’s lives intersected when they decided to spend the summer of 2011 volunteering in public health clinics in rural Oaxaca, Mexico. Offered as a four-week Rutgers Study Abroad experience, the Oaxaca program is the brainchild of Rutgers human ecologist Peter Guarnaccia, who conducted public-health and nutrition research on Oaxacan communities in Mexico and New Brunswick, New Jersey. (See top sidebar.)

In Oaxaca, Ashley worked at Clinica San Antonio where she helped distribute vaccinations and medications among other duties. She also participated in a limpia—an herbal healing ceremony—in a nearby village. “The ceremony is meant to cleanse a person of their physical and mental ailments,” says Ashley. “It started off with the mixing of herbs and alcohol, then a handful of herbs were rubbed over specific points on our arms and head.”

Oaxaca was Ashley’s first trip outside the United States, and she says “my mom was a bit nervous. I did not have worldly experience. But when I got home, my mom was excited for me and eager to hear the great stories I had to tell. Now I have the travel bug. I want to reach out to poor communities and experience new cultures.”

Kenny worked at Clinica Vicente Guerrero where he checked vital signs and administered injections. He plans to go back to the Oaxaca clinic this summer to volunteer and is applying for fellowships in health policy. “Ashley and I worked in different clinics, but all 10 students in the program toured and learned together in Oaxaca,” he says. “We formed great friendships.”

To learn more about Study Abroad in Oaxaca, read Ashley’s blog and Kenny’s blog from summer 2011.

In medical school, I’ll enroll in an M.D./Master in Public Health program. The underprivileged community is my community; that is where I come from. I want to serve my community and give hope.

Kenny Disbrow

Home Life, Campus Life, Future Life

Ashley and Kenny share other similarities. Both chose Rutgers in part because it’s close to home. Ashley commutes from North Brunswick, New Jersey, so she can stay active with her family, but still enjoys a full student life. “You have lots of opportunities at Rutgers. So much is going on. I enjoy theater, the orchestra, or just hanging out with friends.” Kenny lives on campus and works as a residence life community assistant supervisor but goes home to Union, New Jersey, on weekends. He says his family needs his help and he wants to continue serving as a Union Emergency Squad first responder.

Both Ashley and Kenny are applying to medical school for fall 2013 admission and have public health in their career plans. Ashley would like to work in oncology and pediatrics “to bring quality health care to poorer areas. I have even considered working abroad.”

Kenny says, “In medical school, I’ll enroll in an M.D./Master in Public Health program. The underprivileged community is my community; that is where I come from. I want to serve my community and give hope. Health care of the 21st-century is increasingly preventative. Combining both medicine and public health is how I can have the impact I envision for my future.”