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While volunteering in Guatemala, a woman presented to our clinic appearing pregnant. Her history revealed she had been menstruating heavily for years, often requiring blood transfusions. Her imaging and exams revealed a 30 cm multifibroid tumor. She was scheduled for a hysterectomy, and we successfully removed an approximately 7-pound fibroid uterus from a woman who weighed barely 100 pounds. The surgery was life-changing for this woman. This is one of countless stories of patients I have met during my global health volunteer work over the past 22 years. 

As physicians, we know burnout is a genuine concern for ourselves and our colleagues. Through the long hours, the impossibly busy shifts, and the missed family events, we often lose touch with our original passion for medicine and, often, with ourselves. We have high hopes this may improve after residency, and then we realize the time commitment and administrative burdens continue. Returning to the root of my passion for medicine through my volunteer work in global health helps me remain engaged with my career, personal goals, and individual desires, most recently through my volunteer efforts with Guatemala Surgery.

Worldwide, individuals do not have safe and affordable access to surgical care. Guatemala Surgery has worked to address this disparity for over 30 years. They have paired with Hermano Pedro Hospital in Antigua to provide excellent quality and low to no-cost surgical services to the people of all areas of Guatemala, bringing surgeons, anesthesiologists, and additional staff from various departments, including Gynecology to General Surgery to Plastic Surgery and beyond, for at least three weeks a year. A typical schedule is a full clinic day triaging surgical patients and confirming their pre-operative workups are complete and satisfactory for surgery, and the subsequent four days are devoted to completing these surgeries. In over 30 years of work, Guatemala Surgery has performed well over 3000 total surgeries.

Accommodating global health work into our already busy schedules does have logistical or contractual considerations. Here are a few areas to consider if you are interested in pursuing global health:

Does your employer approve outside work (even volunteering)?

Some physicians will find that they will need to request specific approval from their organization to participate, even if it is a volunteer experience. If you are currently negotiating a contract, please request that your administration pre-approve this component before signing. 

Are your expenses out of pocket, or could you apply CME funds or other institutional funds to cover these costs?

Most interested physicians will pay their post-tax income to cover these trips. If you are W-2, this is not tax-deductible, and if you are 1099, you could discuss possible tax deduction opportunities with your CPA. Some employers will approve global health work as a CME expense (I was able to negotiate this with my academic position); however, most will not, citing that this falls outside their deductible expenses based on their interpretation of the IRS tax code. Remember that some global health opportunities will help or fully fund travel for their volunteers (for example, Operation Smile). Some will even provide additional compensation or stipends (for example, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders), so depending on your training and interests, you may find an opportunity such as this. 

How is the time recognized?

Unfortunately, this volunteer work does not often apply as clinical hours for your employer, so physicians often use their PTO to take these trips. Global health work is truly work, so leaving a busy practice for a week often means your clinical burden is increased on either side, and you have one less week of actual vacation available over the year. As an academic physician, I negotiated this time to be additional paid time specifically allotted to global health work by incorporating this into a Global Health Department. – Also, a resident accompanied me on the volunteer trip, which expanded their learning- opportunities. You can explore options such as this within your institution as well.   

As I conclude this reflection on my experiences with Guatemala Surgery, I want to circle back to the incredible support that Contract Diagnostics has extended to this cause. Their commitment to raising funds to support these medical missions is not just about financial assistance; it’s a testament to a shared vision of global health and compassion.

Those who feel called to this kind of work, whether through direct participation or financial support, know that your contributions are integral to the success of these missions. Together, with the backing of organizations like Contract Diagnostics, we can continue to make a profound difference in global health.

To learn more about how you can support or participate in these missions, please visit our landing page about the programs. Your involvement could be the next chapter in this ongoing story of hope, healing, and humanity.

Kathryn Sarnoski, MD
Director of Education, Contract Diagnostics

+1 888-574-5526
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