GLOBAL GOOD: Burke, at right, listens to the heartbeat of a patient.
Imagine caring for a nation of more than 10 million people with fewer than 50 physicians. Imagine learning biochemistry by drawing images in the dirt with a stick. For South Sudanese medical students in 2011, that didn’t require much imagination – it was reality.
After decades of civil war and political strife, South Sudan gained independence, making it the world’s newest country. With that came a host of challenges, including a severe lack of medical infrastructure, resources, training and education for would-be physicians. This crisis, the students experiencing it and the work of the MGH Emergency Medicine’s Division of Global Health and Human Rights to alleviate their struggle is the focus of a new documentary film “Between the Earth and Sky,” which premiered March 15 at the Sun Valley Film Festival in Ketchum, Idaho.
“Between the Earth and Sky” follows Thomas Burke, MD, chief of the MGH division and leader of its Southern Sudan Medical Education Collaborative, as he and his team recruit instructors from Boston and beyond to work alongside Sudanese counterparts to teach 400 medical students who dream of becoming the first generation of South Sudanese doctors.
Shot on location at Juba University, the film transports viewers to the sub-Saharan nation and chronicles the humble beginnings in which these young medical students began their journey. It highlights individual stories of some students, including Chol Makur Aciek, who never saw a doctor during his early years growing up during the war, and Emmily Koiti, who recalls meeting a female Australian doctor and realizing that women could become physicians.
“The students that I met had been struggling for anywhere from one to three years here with essentially no instructors,” Burke says in the film. “And they described the evening that I first met them that they had one cadaver … and one teacher who only taught a third of the time. They had six books, no microscopes, no laboratory and essentially no classrooms.”
Despite the continued challenges in South Sudan, “Between the Earth and Sky” shares the students’ triumphs and the steady progress at Juba University – offering hope for both this new nation and its first generation of doctors.
“Despite so very many challenges, through the efforts of many extraordinary MGH faculty, fellows and volunteers, we continue to do all that we are able to support the education of the students and junior doctors in South Sudan,” says Burke.
Read more articles from the 03/30/12 Hotline issue.