Schweitzer trek underscores student commitment to medicine
Date: August 6, 2010
By Meg Chang
From June 26 to July 8, a 23-member team from Taiwan’s China Medical University followed the life of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) from his mission in Lambarene, Gabon, back to his original home in the Alsace region on the border of France and Germany.
The group also visited the Republica Democratica de Sao Tome e Principe to pay tribute to Taiwan’s medical mission in the island country off the west coast of Africa.
“This is the first project of its kind in Taiwan, and it all started with a visit to our campus in April 2008 by Christiane Engel, Schweitzer’s granddaughter,” CMU President Huang Jong-tsun told Taiwan Today during an interview July 20. Engel was touring the country’s medical schools at that time, speaking on her grandfather’s lasting legacy.
While CMU already requires early hospital exposure by its students and organizes medical tours to underserved communities in Southeast Asia, “I thought it would be a good idea to have them experience first hand what inspired the philanthropist to become one of the greatest figures in the medical profession,” explained Huang, who was also leader of the 13-day excursion.
A total of 17 candidates from different majors were selected through a recruiting campaign on the CMU campus. “Since medicine involves many disciplines, we wanted to assemble a team with as diverse a background as possible,” Huang noted.
These prospective participants then started pre-departure training, with their first assignment being to study 10 exemplary medical professionals in Taiwan’s history. These role models included Lai He (1894-1943), who spared no efforts promoting local literature under Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945), and Wang King-ho (b. 1916), best known for his long-term dedication to curing blackfoot disease, an endemic peripheral vascular disease leading to gangrene, in southwestern Taiwan from the 1960s to 1980s.
To learn how Schweitzer developed his compassion and reverence for life, the students were also required to take courses in the history and intellectual and cultural atmosphere of his time, from a faculty consisting of physicians, musicians, historians and experts in medical history.
While the school’s budget could cover the full travel expenses of only 12 students, an independent review panel suggested that all 17 candidates be allowed to take part in the trip given the strong commitment they displayed during the yearlong training process.
To solve the problem, the students agreed to pay NT$50,000 (US$1,550) each out of their own pockets so that all of them could go. “This showed how strongly they felt about the trip,” Huang said.
The team traveled first to Lambarene, where it donated US$10,000 to the Albert Schweitzer Hospital and held discussions with resident physicians and foreign medical interns working at the facility.
“While the students were aware that the African city is in great need of medical resources, they were still shocked by the disparities in global health services when they actually set foot in the place,” Huang noted.
Lachlan Forrow, president of the Boston-based Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, welcomed the delegation to the hospital. He was so impressed by the project that he invited CMU to set up a Chinese-language website for the organization and return in 2013 to celebrate the hospital’s 100th anniversary.
The group next visited Sao Tome e Principe, where they met with John Chen, Taiwan’s ambassador to the African diplomatic ally, and learned how the ROC medical mission, working with scarce resources, has helped improve the country’s medical services. “These practitioners are the embodiment of the Schweitzer spirit,” Huang said.
The trip ended in France, where the team spent the last five days of their journey in several locations, including the Musee du Docteur Albert Schweitzer in his birthplace Kaysersberg, and the University of Strasbourg, where the physician obtained his doctorates in philosophy and medicine.
The peaceful life Schweitzer enjoyed in these beautiful European cities contrasted sharply with the hardships he encountered while practicing medicine in Lambarene. “This great disparity further accentuates the unselfish contributions of the philanthropist,” Huang pointed out.
The CMU president said he constantly challenged his students during the trip with questions like: What do you see at Lambarene? What were you doing when Taiwan was plagued by SARS in 2003? Did you make any effort to help victims of Typhoon Morakot last August? “Sometimes, students need to be reminded of their original aspirations. Questions like these can help rekindle their passion and renew their determination.”
“This journey was very thought provoking, and I am sure it will have a great impact on my life,” said Chang Rong-chen, one of the participating students. “While there may never be answers to the many questions I have about life, one thing is for sure: my commitment to medicine has been further strengthened after this outing.”
Lin Yi-chun, another participant, said she has learned to treasure what she has in life. “People in Taiwan often take the country’s quality medical care for granted. The trip to Africa made me realize how lucky we are living on this island, and that I should offer my help to those most in need.”
In the future, CMU will continue to require that its students take part in internship programs at home and abroad, and will organize similar tours following the paths of other exemplary figures. The school president said he will also introduce CMU students to Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), a Geneva-based humanitarian organization that provides emergency medical aid to populations in danger around the world.
“MSF allows medical practitioners to volunteer their services on a needed basis, without having to give up their full-time jobs. This seems to be a more flexible arrangement,” Huang said.
But the president added that one need not travel far to practice the preaching of Schweitzer, who said everyone can have his own Lambarene. After witnessing the grueling poverty and despair in West Africa, student Huang Pei-chun said, “Wherever my services are needed, that will be my Lambarene.” (THN)