Following a dream
Medical student to spend summer in Africa
Medical student Ben Gilmer leaves May 1 to spend three months working at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in the African nation of Gabon. Photo by Cliff Hollis
(Mar. 30, 2004)
A third-year medical student from East Carolina University will spend more than three months this summer following his dream while working in the Gabon, Africa, hospital that humanitarian and physician Albert Schweitzer established.
Ben Gilmer has been selected as North Carolina’s only Albert Schweitzer Lambaréné Fellowship recipient for 2004, and he is the first from the Brody School of Medicine to be selected. One University of Chicago, one Tufts University, and two Harvard University medical students have also been chosen for this year’s fellowship.
Gilmer is the only the second medical student from North Carolina to be selected for the Lambaréné Fellowship since its inception in 1978.
Gilmer’s excitement about the opportunity can be seen as his face lights up when he describes the hospital and the need for health care for the people of Gabon. In Africa, 50 percent of the population is HIV-positive. Malaria is common.
“The Schweitzer fellows are indoctrinated into Schweitzer’s philosophy, one that embraces a reverence for life,” Gilmer said. “It’s a great opportunity to learn medicine at the original Schweitzer hospital where one must learn to be dependent on their physical exam skills rather than (computerized tomography) scans.”
The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship selects four third-year medical students primarily from New England and the New York area to spend three and one-half months working as clinical fellows at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon, on clinical rotations. Fellows work as junior physicians, supervised by hospital medical staff and are eligible for rotations in pediatrics, medicine and surgery.
The Albert Schweitzer Hospital, on the banks of the Ogooué River in a tropical rain forest in western Gabon, has served as the primary health care source for the surrounding region since Schweitzer founded it in 1913. Today, an international staff of Gabonese and expatriate professionals provide skilled care through more than 35,000 outpatient visits and more than 6,000 hospitalizations annually for patients from all part of Gabon, an independent republic with a population of approximately 1.3 million.
Gabon borders the Atlantic Ocean between Cameroon and Congo in West Central Africa. Lambaréné is about 100 miles from the ocean. The equator bisects the 99,486-square-mile country.
Gilmer, who grew up in Charlotte, will leave May 1 for Gabon, where he will live and work until mid-August. Because his third year of medical school will not be completed when he has to leave for the fellowship and his classmates will have begun their fourth year before his return, Gilmer has decided to take a year off to pursue mission work.
In August, a week after returning, he will marry his fiancée, Deirdre Smith, a dancer and yoga teacher in New York City. They’re planning a medical mission trip to Ecuador from January to March, where they will work at a Christian Hospital in Quito. There, he hopes to establish a relationship with the Vozandes Hospital so future medical students and family medicine residents will do clinical rotations there while practicing their Spanish. Then they will go to the south of France for two months to work with a rural family medicine doctor in an underserved area near Montpellier. Then it’s back to Greenville so Gilmer can complete his fourth year of medical school.
Because Gabon is a French-speaking country, it is stressed that Schweitzer Lambaréné Fellows should be orally competent in French. Luckily that’s not a problem for Gilmer, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology with concentrations in neurobiology and French from Davidson College in 1992. After graduation, he lived in Paris for two years teaching English in several schools and serving as an English-French translator. He had a job with the French government and that allowed him free access to medical school, so he comp