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IU School of Medicine fellow helps deliver surgical care across the world

With the advancement of technology, people are more connected to the world than ever before. But even with all the connectivity and information out there, people often don’t stop to think about what someone else may be going through around the world.Photo of Michael Kasten, MD showing the difference between a child's blue finger nails before and after heart surgery.

In today’s news from the Middle East, one may only hear the negative stories of refugees displaced by war and civil unrest. That is something that some doctors at Indiana University School of Medicine are working to change.

In August of 2019, Mark Turrentine, MD, the John W. Brown Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at IU School of Medicine, traveled to Jordan and invited  Michael Kasten, MD, a fellow in thoracic surgery to come with him.

We sat down with Kasten and talked about his experience in helping Turrentine at Al Khalidi Hospital in Amman, Jordan…

Photo of Michael Kasten, MD and Mark Turrentine, MD, and Jordanian doctor at Al Khalidi Hospital in Amman, Jordan

Why did you want to take this mission trip to Jordan?

I had been interested in global health since I was an undergrad. I had tried to get on a couple of trips before, and due to logistics throughout my undergraduate and medical school, I was never able to. After I heard that Dr. Turrentine plans these types of trips, I decided I wanted to take part in it. So I planted the bug in Dr. Turrentine’s ear that I would like to go on a trip like this, and it finally worked out that he had space and the need for some help, and I was able to go.

How was the experience?

Photo of Michael Kasten, MD and Mark Turrentine, MD, along with Jordanian hospital staff visiting a boy at the hospital. The experience was amazing. It was exhausting, definitely not a vacation. You have so much to do, from adjusting to the 7-hour time change to performing complex open-heart surgeries. In the back of your mind is the pressure that comes from having fewer resources than at Riley, keeps you razor-focused. So just the amount of time that your brain is firing on all cylinders is exhausting. Combine the novelty of all the new experiences and the sense of reward from your work, and it can be overwhelming, but totally worth it.

How was the experience culturally?

I had never been to the Middle East. So getting to see how people live, especially in Jordan, which is a stable country, but there are a lot of Syrian refugees, Kurdish, and Iraqi people who have displaced due to their countries being war-torn. So seeing how these people are living, and not just how you would see them on the news — secondarily seeing how to deliver medical care in a different country.

While in Jordan, did you feel like you were making a difference?

Photo of Michael Kasten, MD visiting young child days after heart surgery.

Yes! Overall in America, congenital heart disease gets screened out early, so you don’t see what happens years and years down the line when it goes untreated. One case from my trip to Jordan that stands out involves a 10-year-old boy. His dad was crying and thanking us because his two older children died in their beds at home from congenital heart disease. This father was just so thankful that we were able to identify and treat his son in the program. Again, this father was just immensely grateful because his third child was headed toward certain death as well, and we were able to save his life.

Another case that comes to mind was of an 18-month-old Kurdish child that showed up. He had Tetralogy of Fallot, which is a common heart defect that generally gets repaired anywhere from 6 to 8 months old, sometimes even at birth. This child was in a full crisis mode when he came to us. He was blue, and it was apparent this child wasn’t going to make it much longer. But we were able to operate on him and get him better by the end of the week.

Did you have issues with language barriers?

Yes. For example, with the last child, with his parents being Kurdish, they didn’t speak English or Arabic. So it’s tough when this family brings their dying child and hands them to us to help cure them, and all we can do to communicate is to give them thumbs up or thumbs down. That’s when you see these underlying human elements that are just amazing.

Photo of Michael Kasten, MD, and the entire group of Doctors and nurses that assisted during the trip to Jordan.

Would you recommend that other residents or fellows try an experience like this?

I would wholeheartedly recommend it. I think as Americans, we have so many gifts that nobody even really realizes, and all the things we quibble and fight about are just so senseless. When you look at these other countries, and you’re not guaranteed to make it to adulthood, and you don’t have access to all these amazing things we have — seeing how the rest of the world lives, even in Jordan, which is a very developed country. For me going over there and having my worldview broadened was terrific. And if you’re blessed with abilities and resources as we have here to be able to do something good, it just makes sense, and it makes you feel good as well.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Marco Gutierrez

Communication Coordinator

Marco Gutierrez is a communications coordinator for the Indiana University School of Medicine, where he supports the Department of Surgery and the Office of Strategic Communications. Before joining the Office of Strategic Communications, Marco worked for...