Theodore Phan submitted 2020-05-06

Children gathered around me as my drone hovered above the mobile clinic. One pointed to a trash dump on the video display. “Nha o,” he said, meaning “my home.” I felt shock, then noticed his frailness; he had torn clothing and no shoes. It was one of many moments on this medical trip where I recognized the severity of poverty in my family’s home country of Vietnam. I saw young children salvage garbage daily to sell, making barely enough to live, let alone cover healthcare. My experiences filming medical missions and shadowing physician assistants (PA) in third world countries has shown me how disastrous healthcare has become for underserved patients. Therefore, I want to work as a physician assistant providing excellent health care to poverty stricken patients.

The impoverished children brought back memories of my own childhood struggles. Although my experience was not as extreme as for these children in Vietnam, growing up was difficult in a low-income, immigrant family. What made the difference for us was government aid for our basic needs–food stamps, housing support and, most importantly, access to free health care. The help I received allowed me to gain opportunities and experiences to help others. I was able to stay healthy, graduate school, pursue a job in physical therapy, shadow PAs, work as a medical mission drone videographer, as well as volunteer in communities to support and motivate young children; the same support that my mentors gave me.

Giving back to my community has shown how important it is to work as a team, and by becoming a PA I can thoroughly integrate it with my passion for medicine. During my medical trip to the Dominican Republic, we helped treat a single mother and her children. I did a throat swab; the labs came back positive for gonorrhea in all the children’s mouths. These children suffered such a debilitating and horrible disease, and I had to break the news to the mother that her children may be being sexually abused. My emotions ranged from sadness to disturbed, and I felt completely out of my depth. Luckily the team was there to help guide me through the process.

In Tanzania, poor living conditions and a lack of resources left Lucia, a nine-month-old, on the brink of death due to severe acute malnutrition. A medical student and I treated her and did everything we could; sadly, she was beyond treatment. After 48 hours, Lucia passed away. In both the Dominican Republic, and Tanzania, I was struck with frustration at my own lack of experience and training. Through the knowledge and skills I would gain through PA school, I could increase my ability to help these people.

To that end, I have invested in building a foundation upon which I can become a successful PA. I have worked as a Physical Therapy Aide, attended medical trips, as well as shadowed PAs. As a PT Aide, I have developed clear communication skills to build trust and connect with my patients in therapeutic ways. To increase my knowledge about medicine, I shadowed PAs in outpatient departments, becoming familiar with a wide range of patient aliments an understanding the importance of teamwork. These experiences have taught me valuable patient interaction skills and made me eager to treat patients in greater breadth as a PA.

I want to give everything I can, and to use what skills I have in useful ways to make a difference. So, in addition to medical work on trips abroad, I have brought my interest in drone videography to help raise future funding for these programs, documenting the work these trips do, with success. A video I produced for 2017 Vietnam GSMDM raised over a quarter of a million dollars in donations and recruited hundreds of volunteers to continue medical missions to Vietnam. Another video I created while providing aid in the Dominican Republic with Campbell University has been used as an educational tool and shown to Campbell board as a part of the case for continued funding. And most recently, I was able to help document patient care research in Tanzania, on behalf of Dr. Mahmoud, the director of Global Health at Touro Medical School.

I am passionate about providing high level health care to underserved communities because I have seen first hand the devastating effect the lack of health care has. I believe as a PA I can provide first-class healthcare to underserved populations because my clinical experiences taught me the abilities and skills to do the work of caring for patients. Above all, I know I will be a PA who provides good health care because I have the compassion for the underserved, a compassion developed through difficult but rewarding medical trips, and the passion to utilize all my skills and abilities so that I would not see another Lucia or the thin bones of a nine-month-old.