We were really lucky during the trip to work with a number of great people. The support staff at CFHI, the other students on the rotation with us, and the doctors we worked with were great. Naturally, this makes it tough to pick just one person to call most significant. However, since I have to pick just one, I’d have to say that getting to talk to Dr. Bona was the most rewarding and influential. His interesting personality, life story, and dedication to mission work make him a role model for international medicine. Through talking to him I really learned a lot about what it takes to make a lasting difference on a global scale.
To begin, Dr. Bona was born and raised in northern India and pursued training as a general surgeon. Following his residency, he began a fellowship in transplant medicine but quickly found out that it was not for him. Instead, he realized his passion for mission work and explored his options. This eventually led him to a plastic surgery fellowship in Singapore where he learned both cosmetic procedures as well as cleft palate repair. Following his training, he spends time practicing as a plastic surgeon to get experience and make some money but then realize his true passion was a mission work. He then joined with Smile Train, an international NGO with a simple, singular mission to perform cleft palate repair surgeries in third world countries. With Smile Train, he has spent the past 17 years traveling, perform surgery, fundraising, and working to promote the organization all while trying to raise awareness for mission medicine in general.
Our paths crossed while rotating at Landour Community Hospital (LCH) in the hill town of Mussoorie. We spent the majority of our time at LCH with Dr. Bona and the two house medical officers just hanging out and talking since the patient volume was low. Because of this, we were able to swap stories of our travels and experiences abroad. He shared with us what it was like to work in war torn Yemen (including the multiple attempts on his life) and what it takes to dedicate yourself to international medicine. There were tales of meeting with diplomats and dignitaries while soliciting donations and government support for his projects. I could have listened to the stories for weeks on end.
Because I want global health to be a part of my career I’m really thankful for the chance to have talked with Dr. Bona. He is going to be a great connection and contact for me in the future. His experiences gave me a taste of what it is like to have a career in mission medicine and helped me to realize that as much as I like the idea of mission work, being on the front lines providing care it isn’t necessarily the path for me. Instead, I want to focus on making sustainable, systematic improvements in existing mission projects by focusing on education. LCH is the perfect example of how education can make a huge impact. Yes…. it would be great to have doctors from foreign countries come and provide care for a week or two at the hospital and then leave. But LCH has the potential for so much more than being a “doc in a box” facility. They are an institution in their community and are able to provide long-term care by locals who know the patients and understand what problems they face on a daily basis. Rather than having foreign physicians come in and provide medicines or medical care, they can come provide training and resources to improve the already existing facilities. Even in our one short week of working at the hospital, it was readily apparent that they could stand to benefit from protocols and pathways for emergency care. Ultrasound training for the physicians could save them from having to refer patients to Dehradun for a scan – LCH even has an ultrasound, but nobody is certified! The nurses could benefit from advanced training and the system as a whole could use some operational improvements. Foreign doctors who wish to contribute to “mission work” can use their knowledge and experience to better the local staff and physicians which would have a much larger and longer lasting impact in the community than if they were to hold a couple of clinics or do a handful of surgeries. This, in my opinion, is what mission medicine is really about – finding ways to make a lasting and sustainable impact on a community rather than temporary solutions.
I’m really grateful for the chance to have met and talked with Dr. Bona. Our conversations changed some of my opinions regarding mission medicine and helped to clarify what my real interest are. I can only hope that I am able to pursue my interests and goals with as much passion as Dr. Bona.