If he had to give one piece of advice to incoming medical school students, Dennis Hong Liu (pictured, second from left) would tell them to get as much exposure to new things as possible. As someone whose journey has taken him to Mexico and the world of global health after undergraduate study, he has experienced firsthand that you never know what might spark your interest somewhere down the road.
Now in his second year at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, Liu originally hails from San Diego, California and attended UC-Berkeley. During his undergraduate years, Liu studied integrative biology with the goal of attending medical school post-graduation. He spent his free time volunteering at a Hepatitis B clinic that delivered free vaccinations, outreach and education to underserved areas, attempting to address the large prevalence in the Bay area.
Upon coming to Feinberg, Liu heard about the Northwestern University Alliance for International Development. The group, founded in 1999, organizes student trips to Latin America and India to provide free medical care to underserved populations. The organization conducted significant outreach to medical students to generate enthusiasm about practicing medicine abroad. “NUAID really came to the students,” Liu says. “The more I got to find out about it, the more I trusted it.” He got involved, drawn to the organization’s team-based approach, and took on a leadership role in planning a month-long trip to Mexico between his first and second years at Feinberg.
The trip itself was, according to Liu, “the highlight of my first year of medical school because it pushed me outside my comfort zone.” The team spent three weeks shadowing in local clinics, taking Spanish classes, and preparing for the final week, where they put on a workshop for a group of forty traditional midwives, known as parteras, who came from various cities of the state of Oaxaca. It was a valuable lesson in maternal and fetal health, as well as the importance of cultural exchange. “I gained a perspective about how medicine works in other countries that I would never get in Chicago,” he recalls fondly.
The nine-member team partnered with Child Family Health International, a San Francisco-based NGO that helped in the creation of the community programming. In the end, Liu’s responsibilities went far beyond organizing plane tickets, staying in contact with local coordinators and getting the team together. In the end, he says, “the fact that I had a lot of responsibility as the trip leader to get the workshop going, it was an invaluable leadership opportunity.”
Liu was introduced to the concept of global health at Feinberg, never having been abroad to work in medicine. The group he took to Mexico was very widespread with experience in the field, he recalls. “Global health is emphasized at Northwestern,” Liu says, calling the opportunities at both the undergraduate and graduate levels “fantastic.”
The experience taught students how doctors across the world deal with limited resources and what kind of patient outcomes they see, despite the challenges. “These are life lessons I learned from global health that I am unable to replicate [in the classroom],” Liu says. Additionally, upon his return to school following the trip, Liu found his confidence in his medical skills had reached a new level. “Having had to practice physical exams and other medical history taking in Spanish, once I got back to Feinberg, performing history taking and physical exams were easier.”
Now that he is back in the swing of things in Chicago, Liu has returned his focus to the goal of one day becoming a surgeon. His interest in global health sparked, he hopes to one day integrate global health projects into his surgical practice. His interest isn’t specific to one area of the globe, but rather focused on the opportunity to work with underserved populations.
Above all, Liu is grateful for the opportunity he had to enter the realm of global health. “Global health has become an area I want to explore more in,” he says. [The trip] reaffirmed my desire to go into medicine.”