Russell Palmeri, a 32-year-old senior medical student at Georgetown University, says he'll never again be bothered by traffic jams, slow mail deliveries and poor service in restaurants -- not after spending the past six weeks treating sick and starving Cambodians in a refugee camp 60 miles from Bangkok.
Palmeri and a dozen colleagues returned last week from a tour of service in the camps sponsored by the International Catholic Migration Commission and Georgetown University. Several of them spoke this week to 300 Georgetown students and faculty members about their experiences.
With medical teams from several European nations, the doctors, nurses, medical aides and senior medical students treated the refugees for malaria, malnutrition, tuberculosis and a host of other diseases at a camp that housed over 2,500 Cambodian refugees.
Dr. Henry Lederer, associate dean of students at GU medical school, said the first medical team was so successful that a second team was dispatched Jan. 24 and a third team is scheduled to leave Feb. 24. Lederer hopes that enough teams can be organized over the next two years to send fresh medical teams to the camp every six weeks.
Throughout a slide presentation, the team members told the audience how they watched the camp population "bloom" in the six weeks they were there.
"When we got there, you'd see them just sitting around with drawn faces," said Sarah Dunbar, 42, a registered nurse and policy analyst for the Food and Drug Administration here. "But by the time we left, you'd see the children playing and inventing games, and hear them playing music on instruments they made out of bamboo, wire and snake skin. It was so rewarding to see the effect of your work this way."
Dr. Thomas Botsford, a resident pediatrician at Georgetown University Hospital, said, "It really builds your confidence in your clinical abilities when you have no lab working for you. It's definitely helped my medical career."
Some, like Palmeri, said the experience had changed their lives. "It gave me a totally different outlook on being American and being a physician and being alive," he said. "I just wasn't interested in taking up my petty worries when I got back."
Several said if the Georgetown and European medical teams had not been working in the Kam Put camp, they believed that the camp's population would have died.
They added that because of the efforts of international charities, most of the refugees who have been able to escape Cambodia are no longer starving. As a result, they said, medical teams can not focus on treating disease and widespread parasitic infestations instead.
In addition to their routine work with the refugees, members of the Georgetown team did research on turburculosis for the federal Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, and several of the nurses opened an obstetrics clinic.