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Vital Signs

When needy people talk, Nick Ellis listens

By Sarah Schewe

These children in Ecuador are learning how to brush their teeth, thanks to MEDLIFE.

There's nothing unusual any more about medical students who do international volunteer work. Few, however, take the time to found a global outreach organization and to nurture its growth—while keeping up with their medical studies. DMS fourth-year Nick Ellis is one of those few.

Ellis's interest in international health started early. In high school, he traveled to Costa Rica on an exchange program, where he first learned about the health disparities so prevalent in Latin America. Over the next few years, he returned to volunteer in Ecuador, Panama, and Peru.

Premed: At McGill University, Ellis majored in international economic development and as a senior decided to pursue a career in medicine. It was in 2005, during a post-baccalaureate year at the University of Maine to complete his premedical requirements, that Ellis founded MEDLIFE—Medicine, Education, and Development for Low Income Families Everywhere. The organization sends students to impoverished communities in Peru and Ecuador to provide medical services.

But what MEDLIFE is really about, says Ellis, is listening to people. Before he founded the organization, he volunteered for a large international nonprofit dedicated to helping the poor. "A mother came to the organization . . . because her daughter needed heart surgery," he recalls. "The national director's response was essentially that what her daughter needed didn't fit into their mission statement."

Need: Ellis learned a lot from that response. At MEDLIFE, he says, the goal is to listen. "This work isn't about providing a service that we feel is necessary," he says. "It's about providing a service that people living in poverty say they need."

For example, earlier this year in a rural community in Ecuador, Ellis encountered a newborn with pulmonary hypoplasia, or incomplete development of the lungs. He learned that the child had been born three months early after her mother had fallen down a steep hill; the fall had induced labor. At the community's request, MEDLIFE built several staircases in the mountainous village. "It can't be something we own and dictate how it's run," Ellis says. "It has to be something they run."

On every mission, MEDLIFE hires a local doctor who works with students while they run mobile clinics for a week or two. MEDLIFE supports that doctor by providing medications, transportation, a small salary, and basic equipment. The volunteers organize the clinic, handle logistics, and teach preventive measures such as tooth-brushing and hand-washing.

Wake: MEDLIFE's approach was in the vanguard of a reassessment that's taking place among international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In the wake of January's earthquake in Haiti, criticism was leveled at some groups' short-term, medical mission model of aid. Dr. Paul Farmer—the United Nations deputy special envoy to Haiti and a founder (with Dartmouth President Dr. Jim Yong Kim) of Partners in Health, an NGO that got its start in Haiti—has been especially critical. "There's graffiti all over the walls in Port au Prince right now saying 'Down with NGOs' " Farmer said in a speech last spring. "I think people in the NGO world need to read the writing on the wall." What NGOs ought to do in such situations, according to Farmer, is focus on sustainable solutions that address the populations' long-term needs.

"MEDLIFE is unique in several ways," explains Colin Pile, the group's director of finance. "We're trying to reform the traditional medical mission into something more comprehensive, something longer lasting."

As part of that effort, the group tries to maintain a year-round presence in communities where they send volunteers and to follow up on the care provided by volunteers.

MEDLIFE now has chapters on over 20 college campuses nationwide.

MEDLIFE now has several paid employees, but all the time Ellis has devoted to the group has been on a volunteer basis. In fact, he spread his DMS fourth-year requirements over two years so he'd have more time to spend on MEDLIFE. "It's a cliche, but if you love what you do, it doesn't feel like work," he says.

The organization has expanded rapidly and now has chapters on over 20 college campuses nationwide. Two chapters are currently being established in England. In the 2009-10 academic year, MEDLIFE sent 18 student groups to Ecuador and Peru and worked with 90 communities. This past summer alone, volunteers served over 5,000 people.

Useful: Ellis is now deciding what specialty to do his residency in. He's wavering between general surgery and emergency medicine, both of which he feels would be useful in the developing world. He also plans to continue to expand MEDLIFE.

But in the long term, his goal is actually for MEDLIFE to leave Ecuador. To that end, the group is cooperating with the ministry of health and education and with medical personnel in rural communities. "That's how you get to sustainability," Ellis says. "If we make sure communities own these projects . . . , 10, 20 years down the road, it doesn't require us being there."

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