Saving lives changes a career

Nick Bechtold
Nick Bechtold, right, and Nick Bennett, both D.O.’11, immersed themselves in South African culture as well as clinical practice: They went on safari, visited shanty towns and local establishments with South African friends and took in some World Cup soccer games. They enjoyed the local cuisine, including “braai,” or grilled meats; “pap,” a porridge made from ground maize; and fried mopane worms. “After a while, they were like eating pork rinds,” Bechtold says. “We still talk about our adventure as if it were two weeks ago, not two years ago,” he adds. “It ignited my passion for medicine.” Bechtold and Bennett are completing family medicine residencies in Sioux City, IA, and North Carolina, respectively.

In June 2010, my friend and classmate Nick Bennett and I found ourselves cruising by miles of crop fields and rolling hills. Sounds like a typical scene in the summertime countryside in Iowa. However, with the mountains in view, riding “shotgun” on the left side, our friend Themba in the driver seat with the course set to Kruger National Park, we were half a world away in the South African province of Limpopo.

This global health elective rotation – a partnership among DMU, the University of Limpopo and the nonprofit outreach organization Blessman Ministries – was the rotation that I had been waiting for. It was that “ah ha” moment when you know what you want to be when you grow up. Prior to embarking to South Africa, my sights were set on applying for otolaryngology, or ENT, residency. Before we left, I had researched where I would be applying, contacted residencies to schedule audition rotations, and was mentally preparing for my future.

Those four weeks were packed with clinical experience. Within moments of my arrival in the emergency department, called Casualty, I was assessing a man who had been stabbed by his girlfriend and needed prompt bowel resection. The surgeon invited me to assist with the operation. While working at the Rethabile clinic, I was called to deliver a baby as no doctors were available. One night in the ER, I used my penlight to entertain a young orphaned boy who had been ejected from a pickup after an accident. And when the radiology department went on strike, we had to rely on our physical exam training to triage patients out of the hospital. On our last day, after two buses collided on the highway, Nick and I were called in to help. As the helicopters were flying in, it was almost like a scene from the TV show “M.A.S.H.”

These clinical experiences gave me a feeling of utility, that I can make a difference. At the Limpopo hospital, I was able to care for patients in a way that I had never experienced. My work in the emergency room was exciting, hands-on, and valuable. The cases I saw in the local primary care clinic and HIV clinic were provocative. We were able to spend time educating patients on their diabetes and high blood pressure. Nick and I often picked up extra hours in Casualty at night to see more patients.

The thing that hooked me the most, however, was the gratitude of the patients and the staff. I was not expecting the people to be as friendly as they were. In the primary care clinic, the nurses gave us African names. They named Nick “Dr. Tshepo,” which means “hope.” They called me “Dr. Kagiso,” which means “one who brings others together.” I still wear the nametag they had made for me. It reminds me of why I chose a career in medicine.

Meanwhile, the paperwork I’d brought along for ENT residency sat untouched. When I returned to Iowa, I made the decision to change my application to family medicine. I knew that this would be the avenue to touch a person’s life like I was able to thousands of miles away. I am so thankful to DMU and Blessman Ministries for providing me with an experience that altered my path into primary care.

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