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When travel is the best medicine

Maxine and Margaret Perko pose with the children and staff of Nantale's Orphanage on a previous trip to Kampala. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Perko)

The new Moller international travel award expands medical students’ global perspective

Traveling beyond the city limits of Kampala, Uganda, can feel like stepping into a time warp. Cars inch along the dusty, potholed streets. Mud huts line village roads. And even the best technology would be considered long outdated in the United States.

But for fourth-year University of Minnesota medical student Margaret Perko, it’s an ideal place to help her become a great doctor. “There aren’t any fancy CT scanners or MRIs,” she acknowledges. “But when you can’t just get an ultrasound machine and put a probe on a patient, that means you really have to listen to what they’re telling you. That’s valuable, not just in making me a better diagnostician, but in appreciating patients as people.”

Fostering global thinking

Starting in February, Perko will spend 11 weeks doing a rotation at Kampala’s Mulago Hospital, working in infectious disease and possibly ob/gyn. She’ll also work closely with caregivers at orphanages to teach critical first aid skills. Her work is possible thanks to a gift from James Moller, M.D., and his wife, Carol Moller, who created the Moller Scholarship for International Medicine. The award covers up to $2,000 in travel expenses for up to 10 fourth-year medical students at the University who participate in a global elective through the University’s International Medical Education and Research (IMER) program.

For Jim Moller, professor emeritus of pediatrics and an adjunct professor of medicine at the University, the gift made perfect sense. He has worked for the University for more than 50 years and is eager to help future generations of doctors. “[The trips] are life-changing experiences for these students,” he says. “It’s a worthy cause and a deserving institution.”

Students’ horizons have opened up in recent decades, and he knows that international study is critical for future doctors. The Mollers themselves have worked overseas, and they understand how living and working in other countries transform the way people understand the world. Jim Moller wants physicians to think bigger about the impact they can make — not just in their communities, but throughout the world. “We’re interested in encouraging [medical students] to think globally in terms of health care and their obligations as physicians,” he says.

Medical School alumnus Ross Perko, M.D., examines an orphan in Uganda. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Perko)

Putting the U on the map

According to IMER director Phillip Peterson, M.D., the award further cements the Medical School’s position as a global health leader. Thanks to its ever-expanding opportunities for students, IMER is among the best of programs of its type nationally, and it’s able to attract some of the brightest and most ambitious students, Peterson says.

The Moller international medical scholarship will allow students to have travel experiences that benefit them long after they return — even if they never leave the state again. Because Minnesota has more refugees and immigrants per capita than any state in the country except Florida, doctors who practice here will necessarily care for immigrants from all over the world, says Peterson. “Part of your education is to understand how important culture is. Students who travel abroad have their eyes opened.”

Making cross-cultural connections

Perko has already experienced the powerful and unexpected ripple effect that such trips can generate. Her older brother, Ross, a 2007 Medical School graduate, traveled to Kampala as part of a program to study infectious disease at Uganda’s Makerere University. He quickly connected with a local orphanage, where he became a frequent and beloved visitor known for his animated renditions of the song “Wooly Bully.” His tales of his experiences in Uganda so captivated his mother, Maxine, and Margaret that both have made multiple trips to the country to help out with the area’s growing number of orphanages.

Margaret Perko says she’s especially grateful for the Moller award because it will allow her to focus on the trip itself, not the finances. For previous trips, she’s cobbled together a patchwork of funds: wages made doing odd jobs, donations from family and friends, and savings. “For me,” she says, “[the award] makes me want to work even harder to make sure that I’m making the most of the experience.”

As she looks ahead, Perko believes she’ll be able to combine her love of Minnesota, medicine, and international experiences. “I’ve fallen in love with the people and the country [of Uganda]; I can’t not have them as a part of my life,” she says. “My dream would be to get my [future] community involved and help them see that these are people just like you … they have the same problems and thoughts that you do. The world is smaller than we think, and we all have so much to offer each other.”

By Erin Peterson, a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who often writes for colleges and universities

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