student intern provides medical care to a patient
By Gene Marrano

Students reflect on an invaluable experience in Zambia

Three Roanoke College students who plan to pursue various paths in the health care field made an eye-opening voyage last summer to Zambia, Africa with Orphan Medical Network International (OMNI), a nonprofit organization that provides medical care, education and community support to countries in need worldwide.

OMNI funds the George School, outside of Ndola, Zambia, for children who are living in critical circumstances. Qualifying “critical” conditions include single-parent households, extreme poverty, hunger and situations where substance abuse is evident. Students at the George School — which has an enrollment of about 360 — have a full day of learning, primarily with materials donated by OMNI.

Last summer, medical mission trip teams traveled to eight villages in 10 days, setting up mobile clinics. Each saw about 500 patients who received wound care, dental work, humanitarian aid, prescriptions after diagnosis, and blood tests, sent to a lab when necessary.

A donor provided funding for three Roanoke College students — Reilly Bird ’21, Emily Spangler ’20 and Braden Wright ’20 — to join the OMNI teams on their medical mission trips last July.

Bird worked in Zambia alongside a volunteer dentist, who was from the Roanoke Valley.  So impactful was that experience that she has changed her path of study from medical to dental school.

“The opportunity to have a hands-on experience with doctors and registered nurses while abroad in a new country has only made my certainty in becoming a health care professional grow exponentially,” she wrote in a letter after the mission trip, reflecting on that experience to the unnamed donor. All three students wrote thoughtful, straight-from-the-heart thank-you notes.

Bird called the trip “a life changing opportunity,” and she hopes other students follow in her footsteps. “Returning to North America, it was difficult to enter places like grocery stores or even a Walmart, where you could see the abundance of resources...I've found the whole experience difficult to explain to people.”

The Health Professions Advising Group, a group of seven professors from various fields, helps to guide students who are interested in furthering their education in the health care field. They selected the student pool from which OMNI selected three for the Zambia trip, and the group has recommended five Roanoke College undergraduates for a medical mission trip in the summer of 2020. 

Roanoke College provides an excellent education for students seeking careers in the health professions.  This includes many health-focused courses such as Exploring Healthcare, Here’s to Your Health, Powerful Medicine, Ethics and Medicine, and Theory and Practice of Research in a Clinical Setting.  In addition to the OMNI mission trip, there are many opportunities to gain health-related experience outside of class.  Students test pharmaceuticals from Kenya as part of a collaboration with Notre Dame, they train at wilderness first aid events with physicians, they participate in clinical research, and they scribe in local hospitals and at a free clinic to name a few.

Johann says Roanoke College’s first-ever collaboration with OMNI “was a really good experience for students to see other people who aren’t like themselves. They’re helping to provide medical care to people who get it maybe once a year when the [OMNI] medical mission comes through. It’s a really great way for them to serve others in need and to get experiences outside of their culture.”

Emily Spangler says she appreciated the practical experiences she took part in on the mission trip. “I pricked fingers, held babies, and learned how to take serial blood pressures, among other things,” she recalls. “My favorite part of the trip was working with the families who came in together.”

Spangler has experienced hospital environments in the past, but Zambia required that she think somewhat outside the box. “I took each new clinic as an opportunity to find ways to streamline our process so that we could provide higher quality care more quickly. By our last clinic, we worked like a well-oiled machine.”

Spangler hopes to study at the University of Copenhagen, where she would pursue a master’s degree in global health and specialize in infectious disease control. Spangler is a recipient of the Skelton Jones Scholarship from Rotary International, which will support her as she continues her education. 

Braden Wright wrote that he knew the Zambia trip would have a “huge impact” on him, but joining the OMNI team last summer, “resulted in a life-changing experience during which I witnessed countless moments of heartbreak and adversity, but countless more moments of hope, love, happiness, courage and friendship,” he noted.

Wright took numerous photos during the 10-day OMNI medical mission trip to Zambia, hoping to capture what he experienced during his travels to assist health care teams at the mobile clinics.

“Working with such a wonderfully diverse and eclectic group of people gave me the chance to learn a lot — not only in terms of medical knowledge, but [also] in terms of companionship and understanding,” he says.

Says Spangler: “I will always remember the time I spent in Zambia with OMNI and I hope to return to Zambia in the future.”