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group photo of students in Tanzania

Next Stop: Tanzania

SBU’s Popular Study Abroad Program Opens Up for Future Medical Practitioners

By Ellen Cooke

Students in Group in Tanzania

Provost Carl Lejuez and students with staff and faculty from KCMC.

The value of study abroad experiences for students is undeniable. So when Thomas Bilfinger, MD, and others saw the opportunity to open up this unique opportunity to students interested in healthcare, they seized it. January 2024 marked the birth of the first winter abroad program in Tanzania — which, significantly, is also the first Stony Brook program focused exclusively on healthcare — in a setting that provides insights into another culture. (The opportunity represents an expansion of SBU’s Tanzania summer study abroad program, recognized as one of the most popular programs the university offers.)

Bilfinger is a professor in the Cardiothoracic Surgery Division at the Renaissance School of Medicine, director of the Tanzania Global Health program and a BIG believer — and longtime participant — in Stony Brook’s study abroad programs. He said the need for “externship” opportunities like this is heightened by the fact that local training for Stony Brook students interested in careers in healthcare is more limited than ever before. Stony Brook and Veterans Affairs facilities in Northport and Southampton, for example, “are the only three Stony Brook-controlled training places left on Long Island,” he said. 

What a Difference a Season Makes
While the longstanding Tanzania summer program has included visits to hospitals and nursing schools, Bilfinger said, “this is the first study abroad offering at Stony Brook to take place at a renowned medical university. The Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre [KCMC] is a higher-level academic center, which is needed to attract more students.”

He added, “Tanzanian medical centers have patient populations and problems we don’t see here. So students will see cases they wouldn’t get to see at home.” Bilfinger said winter abroad participants even heard a lecture from the foremost authority on leprosy, Bernard Naafs.

“They’d never see a person of that caliber in the U.S. or many other places in the world,” said Bilfinger. “He talked with them all about his life and it was very insightful for them. They couldn’t close their mouths!”

Provost Carl Lejuez meets with students

Provost Lejuez meets with students.

The academic component of the program included seminars from specialists like Naafs. It also included daily lectures alongside a local KCMC faculty member and pediatrician, Rune Philemon, MD, whose expertise as a practitioner in Tanzania helped shed light on the healthcare system in the nation. Students were also exposed to various units at KCMC as they shadowed Tanzanian and Stony Brook Medicine health professionals.

When talking about the new winter program, Bilfinger was quick to recognize the contributions of Professor Kamazima Lwiza, a faculty member in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and program director of the Tanzania summer program since 2017. “Dr. Lwiza’s leadership has definitely played a significant role in not only enriching the existing summer program,” he said, “but also in expanding course offerings in Tanzania in exciting new ways. That includes the healthcare-focused winter program that’s paving the way for students interested in this field to have their own deep, cross-cultural experience.” 

Study abroad programs such as the new winter program also dispel myths and expose misinformation. Bilfinger gave this example: “There’s a misconception,” he said, “that medical institutions in countries like Tanzania, where medical resources are scarcer, are unable to perform as well as high-income countries. But it’s quite the opposite. They are working on a very high level with Tanzanian residents. Technically they are very good — as good or better than here in some cases. Essentially, they’re able to do more with less.”

Nine undergraduate students — most of whom are pre-med — took part in the winter program late December 2023 through mid-January ’24, a shortened, two-week excursion that was tailored to meet their schedules and needs. While these students aren’t allowed to perform clinical procedures anywhere, they came away with practical, eye-opening experiences. For many of these students, it was their first observational experience in healthcare.

Isabella Snyder ’26, a biology major on a pre-med track, spoke about her experience shadowing at KCMC. “I was confronted with glaring disparities within healthcare systems, igniting a passion within me to delve deeper into the realm of international public health. The bonds formed during this period have not only fueled my passion for healthcare, but also steered my academic trajectory.”  

Patrick Waryold ’25, another biology major who hopes to practice oncology in medical school, said, “Drs. [Alexander] Dagum, Bilfinger and Philemon all made sure everyone had the opportunity to see the world in a perspective that writers of academic textbooks only dream to encapsulate. Dr. Philemon helped me break down cultural barriers and misconceptions. He worked to ensure we all got the most out of our time at KCMC — teaching us the importance of cross-cultural collaboration, especially in an increasingly globalized world where medicine is a passion shared by those who truly want to make a difference.”

Surgeons Bilfinger and Dagum also worked on challenging operations and procedures while there. Dagum, a professor of surgery and orthopaedic surgery and executive vice chair of surgery, said, “The collaboration with physicians at KCMC was excellent. We worked with senior residents and attendings and we learnt from each other. We did some difficult reconstructive plastic surgery cases, a total of 10, that all went well through great teamwork.”

What the Future Holds
The presence of Provost Carl Lejuez on this landmark trip underscored the importance of the collaboration. He showcased Stony Brook’s medical prominence and innovation, and signed a cooperative agreement with KCMC for future alliances.

For his part, Lejuez said, “My time in Tanzania was transformative. I am excited about the potential for this new agreement to continue to deliver mutually beneficial exchanges between Stony Brook and communities worldwide. Few other institutions have as much presence in East Africa as Stony Brook. It is a tremendous opportunity for us to further expand our partnerships and elevate our increasingly global profile.”

Bilfinger said that in addition to holding more winter sessions, he hopes to expand the program from undergraduates to medical students, even offering credits for a full-semester rotation. 

Dagum said, “I am hopeful SBM and the KCMC can continue to build on this and have medical students, residents and attendings from Stony Brook go to KCMC as well as medical students, residents and attendings from KCMC come to Stony Brook.”
Bilfinger put the importance of partnerships like this into a broader context, too: 

“Environmental issues are also public health issues. How does too much rain or no rain affect public health? Is malaria increasing or decreasing? Is prenatal care improving or not? What do environmental parameters have to do with that, if anything all?

“There’s a myriad of things that need to be studied — and can be studied — through programs such as the new winter study abroad offering in Tanzania. And that’s exactly why we continue to work to expand, diversify and enrich these experiences.”

 

Top Photo: The students and faculty at Materuni waterfall. Bilfinger (orange jacket), Dagum (black shirt) and KCMC instructor Rune Philemon standing in front (grey shirt).

 

Ellen Cooke is the associate director of internal communications