After working with patients in Haiti and Mexico, Adrian Falco and Amanda Miller now have a clearer focus for their career goals.
Adrian Falco realized in high school he wanted to be a doctor, but it wasn't until his junior year at Texas Tech University that he really fell in love with the field of medicine. That's when he discovered the realm of public health.
As a member of the Center for the Integration of STEM Education & Research (CISER), Falco accompanied Dr. Gary Fish, a Dallas ophthalmologist and Texas Tech alumnus, on a medical mission trip to Haiti in 2018. Fish takes off a few weeks each year from his practice at Texas Retina Associates and travels to either Guatemala or Haiti to provide vision care for people who otherwise wouldn't have any. Since 2014, Fish has taken along a number of Texas Tech students, giving them life-changing experiences in the process.
While in Haiti, Falco's eyes were opened to some of the biggest problems in global medicine – and, as a result, he now knows what he wants to do with his life.
Falco spent a week observing medical teams in Petit-Goâve, a coastal town of 12,000 people about two hours southwest of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. During his time there, Falco noted the lack of infrastructure that remains nearly a decade after a 5.9-magnitude earthquake directly beneath Petit-Goâve killed 1,000 people.
"There's no clean running water for the Haitians," said Falco, who earned his bachelor's degree in biochemistry last month. "A lot of buildings were in shambles."
He also found a drastic shortage of available medical care. Petit-Goâve has no eye doctors, so while working with Fish, Falco saw firsthand the great need of many Haitian people with eye diseases. He remembers one woman in particular – an elderly woman with patches over both eyes – who suffered from detached retinas.
"It was a problem that would have been easily solved in this country," Falco said, "but in Haiti, it was hopeless."
It's problems like these he hopes to solve. The trip was so transformative to him that he changed his Honors College senior thesis to focus on the global picture of medicine and service, particularly the challenges of delivering needed medical supplies to countries like Haiti.
"My time in Haiti allowed me to experience the world from a new lens," Falco said. "I had the chance to witness extreme poverty and sickness, as well as reflect upon what I saw. Being in Haiti and writing about it allowed me to better understand the deep roots that cause poverty and the many social determinants of health. This led me to never assume that poverty and the patients' current situation are caused purely by choice, but rather are caused by a myriad of factors.
"It is absolutely crucial to take this into account when treating patients, and that is perhaps the greatest lesson I will take away from my experiences abroad."
He said while these underlying factors may be extremely difficult to fix, making an effort to address or at least understand them can lead to overall better health care and well-being, both for the patient and the community as a whole.
"My trip in Haiti helped give me a clearer direction of what I want to do with my career and what I would like to focus on in my medical education," Falco said. "After the destitution I saw, and reflecting on my experiences in my Honors senior thesis, I would like to pursue medicine with a focus on public health and work toward promoting health equity.
"I hope to one day go back to Haiti, or anywhere, and work toward strengthening health care systems."
He'll begin the next chapter of his education this fall at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) School of Medicine. But before that, he has one more opportunity to help provide hands-on care to those in need.
Dr. Michael Whetstone, who earned his bachelor's degree in zoology from Texas Tech and his M.D. from the TTUHSC School of Medicine, has become a renowned plastic surgeon in the more than three decades since graduating. And, like Fish, he takes time off each year to take his talents where they're most needed.
Whetstone travels to Guerrero, Mexico, each summer to treat children with a variety of life-altering physical ailments. When he learned about Texas Tech students' participation in Fish's medical mission trips, Whetstone jumped to offer a similar opportunity.
In May 2018, Amanda Miller – who had just graduated with her bachelor's degree in biochemistry – became the first CISER scholar to attend Whetstone's Mexico mission trip. She was able to actually participate in surgical procedures, including repairs for cleft lips, the opening left between a child's mouth and nose when their upper lip doesn't form correctly; polydactyly, the presence of more than five fingers or toes on a hand or foot; and syndactyly, in which fingers or toes are either webbed or fully conjoined.
"Most of the patients we saw during our trip were young children with conditions for which surgery is really the only treatment," said Miller, now an M.D.-Ph.D. student at the University of California-Los Angeles. "However, operations like these are few and far between, given the cost and condition of the health care system in Chihuahua. These families travel miles and miles to have a chance at the operation that would help their children, a realization that made me even more determined to do everything I could to help while I was there.
"One of the best things about the trip was that, from the moment I arrived at the clinic, I was completely immersed in each aspect of a patient's care. I met our patients and their families in the waiting room, followed them back to pre-operative care, accompanied them into the operating room and assisted Dr. Whetstone on each surgery. Finally, the most rewarding part: I witnessed the immense gratitude of the family as their child was returned post-op, ready to go home happy and healthy."
Miller knew prior to the trip that she wanted to be a surgeon, but she didn't know what kind. With little exposure to plastic surgery, she was surprised by how much she fell in love with it.
"If someone says plastic surgery, we all think of face lifts and tummy tucks, but I learned it is so much more," she said. "It was so exciting to witness firsthand the artistry, ingenuity and skill of a renowned plastic surgeon making such a special difference in the world. It inspired me to think seriously about specializing in plastics and reconstructive surgery, something I couldn't have predicted would happen."
In Guerrero, Whetstone's team served a diverse community of Hispanics, Mennonites and Tarahumara Indians, some from surrounding villages and some who had traveled dozens of miles to receive care.
"Seeing the hope and gratitude in their eyes was a simple reminder of the human responsibility to give and to serve," Miller said. "But more than that, experiencing the cultural heritage of this city and its people allowed me to think more broadly about the goals of medicine and the ways I could continue to pursue such work."
Since she doesn't speak Spanish, Miller initially was concerned that she wouldn't be able to communicate with their patients. She quickly found out that hugs are universal.
"Most memorable to me were the connections I was able to make while I was there, not only with Dr. Whetstone's surgical team, but also with our patients," she said. "I have colorful memories of holding patients' little hands, learning to tie a surgical knot for the first time, and passing out in bed after a long but rewarding day of operating. But most of all, I remember the way it felt to know we were changing lives for the better, and I want to feel that way for the rest of my career.
"Going on this mission trip has helped me rediscover the reasons I first wanted to become a surgeon," she added. "It has shown me again and again the tremendous privilege we have as physicians to be a part of people's lives at their most vulnerable moments and the power we have to heal."
For his part, Whetstone was so impressed with Miller's performance that he invited her back again this year.
"Last year, the mission trip was an entirely new experience to me. I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed pre-med hoping to learn a lot and be of as much help as possible," she said. "This year, with an entire year of medicine under my belt, I hope to be even more involved and to put to the test my knowledge of anatomy and physiology in a new way. I also really want to push myself to step out of my comfort zone even more, because that's where the best learning takes place."
One of her tasks this summer will be to train the newest member of the Mexico team: Falco.
"What I hope to get out of this trip is to experience the direct impact surgery has on the patients," Falco said. "I will have the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Whetstone to deliver procedures to people who would otherwise not have the access to the surgeries. The procedures will remain with the patients the rest of their lives. It will be an incredible opportunity to witness Dr. Whetstone's skills and the lasting effect of his work."
For Falco and Miller, who are now in a long-distance relationship, it will be a welcome change to work together on something for which they both care deeply.
"Both Adrian and I were seriously surprised and thrilled to learn we would be going on the trip together," Miller said. "Before anything else, we were friends who shared a passion for medicine and a desire to make a difference, and on this trip we will get to do exactly that. I want to leave this trip knowing that I was personally invested in the care of each patient we see. I want to cherish every moment in the operating room and to apply what medicine I have learned in order to help these wonderful people."
Falco said the opportunity to go on this medical mission trip before beginning medical school both humbles and puts things in perspective for him.
"My medical school education will be highly technical and arduous in the years to come, and the experience I will take back from this trip to Mexico, as well as my experiences in Haiti, will keep me rooted in the reason why I want to pursue medicine," he said. "Ultimately, the reason is to use my technical knowledge and good fortune to help others in greatest need."