Gary Willyerd: Showing students a world of healing
July 1, 2015
I developed a love and appreciation for travel, international study and service when I had the chance to study in Austria after completing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan. A Michigan native, I returned to the state and attended MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, after which I embarked on a career in emergency medicine and administration.
My passion for introducing medical students to community service and study abroad began nearly 20 years ago, when I was serving as director of medical education at Pontiac Osteopathic Hospital (now McLaren Oakland). A friend and physician colleague invited me to go to Guatemala to work in a clinic providing care to underserved people of all ages. I was hooked. I came back to Pontiac and talked my internship director into setting up an annual two-week rotation in Guatemala for interns, residents and doctors. I’ve been going back there for the past 18 years and I love it. The people are warm and appreciative and we get the chance to help people from a wide range of geographic areas – from urban centers to very rural villages.
When I accepted the job as associate dean and professor for the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at its Detroit Medical Center site, I came to East Lansing to finalize my appointment. As I was signing the agreement, the first thing Dean William Strampel said to me was, “You’re going to Peru.” I said, “What?” It was June 2008 — I didn’t even have an office yet — and here I was being asked to lead an elective that was scheduled to take place in two months to a country I’d never visited.
Peru has a national health care system, but the farther you get away from the capital city of Lima, the fewer the resources are available. So this August, as we have for the past three years, we’ll take a group of students, residents, physicians and other health care professionals on an experience like one that they are not likely to encounter anywhere else – to the Amazon.
About 70 of us will go to Belen, a community that is actually a slum area accessible only by air or boat. The inhabitants live on boats, though I use the term loosely, as they craft housing from whatever material they can find that floats. There’s no running water, no sanitation, it’s right on the edge of the Amazon River near the city of Iquitos.
The people are wonderful, warm and appreciative of our care, and I’m thrilled to be working with Iquitos’ newly reelected mayor to find space for a permanent continuity clinic. I want to connect our efforts with DOCARE – an international medical outreach organization – to send students from MSUCOM and other medical schools to the area on a year-round basis. We’re also working with a Peruvian medical school in the city of Trujillo that has agreed to send its graduates there. We could establish a more permanent, accessible site that would enable us to involve more future doctors in caring for people in desperate need.
I feel so very fortunate that Dean Strampel offered me the opportunity to go to Peru. He set the stage for what has become one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. I get to travel internationally and explore new areas, I get to serve an indigent population that has little or nothing and I get to do it through the eyes of my students, which takes it to a whole new level.
It’s an opportunity for them to experience providing health care for the first time. It takes it to the next level. I try to create a culture of inculcating the importance of service. I know that it doesn’t happen for everyone, but when I see how some of the past interns have gone on to do things like helping victims of the Indonesian tsunami or Nepal’s earthquake, it makes me feel good. In doing these things you hope they develop that passion, whether it’s in Pontiac, Michigan or Indonesia.