MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Sarah Carpenter’s impossible quest: To heal the world’s underserved

March 1, 2010

NEW YORK, Mar. 1, 2010/ Troy Media/ — If Sarah Carpenter had been practicing medicine in the late 1890s, she probably would have been a general practitioner – GP for short. She’d travel to remote hamlets at all hours of the day or night to deliver babies, treat everything from diphtheria to pneumonia, and mend mangled bodies thrown from horses or kicked by cows in the throes of delivery.

Instead of being paid in cash, her fee likely would have been produce – fresh vegetables or eggs, or a recently slaughtered chicken. Money wouldn’t have mattered to Carpenter, because she’d have known that most of her patients barely earned enough to feed and support themselves.

It’s nice to be paid in good old-fashioned money, but it wouldn’t have been the reason Carpenter became a doctor.

GP has all but disappeared

Fast-forward to 2010. The frontier has disappeared. The lone practitioner has been replaced by a raft of specialists who focus on specific illnesses or medical problems, or limit their practice to treating only children, adults or senior citizens.

And the overworked GP – once a reassuring fixture on the American landscape, who’d never turn away a sick patient – has been renamed and redefined as a comparatively lower-paid specialist called a family practitioner. There are hardly enough of them in the United States and Canada, much less the rest of the world – especially in Third World countries, where poverty and disease are rampant.

Carpenter considered a few specialties, but she predictably settled on family medicine. “I considered pediatrics and women’s health,” says Carpenter, “but a family practitioner deals with all kinds of problems and health issues, and especially emergency medicine, where you get to treat all kinds of medical problems.”

Not interested in money

It’s hard to believe that a young doctor with great credentials (a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College, a medical degree from the University of California, San Diego, and a residency in Family Practice at Santa Monica/University of California) actually would build a career serving the poor  and indigent.

Dr. Sarah Carpenter's mission in life is to help the needy
Dr. Sarah Carpenter's mission in life is to help the needy

But Carpenter’s career decision was given a great deal of thought; it was never considered a short-term experiment that would be aborted when she came to her senses and realized that she could have taken an easier – not to mention safer – career path and built a lucrative family practice. And, like many of her peers, she could affiliate herself with prestigious hospitals, like L.A.’s world-famous Cedars-Sinai, hospital to the stars and super-rich.

There aren’t many freshly-minted MDs, especially in fast-track, high-living L.A., who would pass up all the delicious perks that successful physicians relish: a six-figure salary, state-of-the-art modern home in a choice suburb, and status wheels – a Benz, Jag, or top-of-the-line Porsche.

It’s not that Carpenter doesn’t like nice things. A substantial salary certainly would make her life easier. But all the conventional accoutrements of success weren’t important to her. She had other priorities she deemed more pressing.

Carpenter’s idealistic mission

As Carpenter sees the world, the only qualifier for medical care is need. Everyone deserves good medical care – from

the homeless beggars and junkies to the millions of impoverished people scattered about the globe who not only can’t afford medical insurance or the cost of routine medical checkups, but three squares a day.

Growing up in prosperous Ventura County and raised by professionals (her father was an engineer, her mother a teacher), Carpenter attributes her selfless philosophy to her parents, who introduced her to community service and stressed the importance of travel as an enriching educational experience.

Unlike most teens, her parents’ advice resonated. Throughout her high-school  years, she was involved in many community-service projects – food and clothing collections, working with mentally-impaired adults and trips to border towns in Mexico to help indigent families.

By the time she graduated college, she’d been abroad twice. When she was 16, she spent three months in Sopora, Japan, as an exchange student; two years later, she took advantage of a class trip to Russia. Both trips made indelible impressions on her. “I discovered that the world was far different than I imagined it,” she says. The disparities disturbed her.

Carpenter realized that there was poverty everywhere – far different from the idyllic sitcom world she saw on TV. “When I was in Russia, I saw people waiting hours on bread lines,” says Carpenter. Somehow the 6 p.m. news broadcasts bypassed these harsh and disturbing images.

More upsetting was discovering that practically in Carpenter’s backyard, in the canyons, “there were indigent and undocumented people who had nothing – no food, nor identity,” she says.

Carpenter intended to do something about it. So began her travels and her affiliations with non-profit organizations whose sole purpose was providing medical care and feeding the world’s impoverished.

Working with Doctors Without Borders

Before joining Doctors Without Borders/Madecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in 2005, Carpenter spent a few weeks in Albania during the Kosovo War working in a trauma center that was set up as a joint venture by UCLA and the International Medical Corps.

Since she was a teenager two themes have guided Sarah Carpenter’s life: One is the driving, organic need to help people; The other is the search for knowledge and truth in order to understand how the world works so she can – at best – come to terms with the inequities of the world. These two powerful, interwoven themes have defined her life and helped make her what she is today: a rare, giving, sensitive woman who moves from project to project without a career plan. It’s doubtful she knows where she’ll be working two or three years down the road. Count on one thing: She’ll be in the thick of things, possibly working in another inner-city clinic or in some forgotten part of the world treating starving and sick children, nurturing them back to life.

But her work with MSF honed and defined her skills as a gifted physician with the capacity to not only deliver expert medical care, but to work under abnormally stressful conditions. Providing aid in 60 countries, MSF was founded by physicians and journalists in France in 1971.

Carpenter has worked with MSF’s medical teams in Darfur, Angola and Uganda. During her first trip in 2005, she spent seven months in a small Angolan town, Cangola, more than 100 miles (approx. 161 km) from the nearest medical facilities. During that hectic first tour, Carpenter discovered what it was like delivering critical medical care in a remote part of the world where life dangled precariously on a flimsy thread.

Working with an international medical team, which consisted of a logistics person, nurses and a small staff, a temporary medical center was set up. She was the only doctor in the group.

With field experience under her belt, Carpenter knew that it wasn’t going to be easy, and that she’d be treating patients in dire need of medical care. But she had no idea that it would be catastrophic. Many of the women and children were practically on death’s door.

“Initially, it was terrifying, realizing that our small team was providing critical medical care to so many people,” says Carpenter. “There was no way to prepare for what had to be done.”

Carpenter learned on the job what it was like to run a clinic with a tiny staff and to care for patients, many of whom were in critical condition.

“Within a normal day, I’d see as many as 100 patients,” says Carpenter. “The most common problem was malaria, followed by respiratory infections, malnutrition and meningitis.”

Often too late to save babies

But the most heart-rending problem was trying to prevent maternal mortalities, says Carpenter. Talk about putting life in shattering perspective. “In the U.S., doctors and hospitals are focused on healthy deliveries and monitoring pregnancies through every stage. In remote Angolan villages, the reality is that most women never get health care in time to have healthy deliveries,” she says.

Carpenter pauses to collect her thoughts. As hard as she tries to save both baby and mother, it’s often impossible. “Most of the time, I’m not thinking about healthy deliveries, because it’s too late to save the baby,”

Carpenter explains, her voice shaking slightly. “I’m just focused on saving the woman’s life so she doesn’t hemorrhage and die of infection.”

Even though Carpenter has saved countless women from hemorrhaging to death, but lost the children, she says she’s always shattered by the experience. “It’s something I’ll never get used to,” she says, and always finds it hard to talk about.

The MSF medical professionals who’ve worked closely with her say she brings more than extraordinary medical skills to her patients; she also brings  compassion, love and empathy to every patient – young and old.

Whether it takes 15 minutes or a couple of hours to treat a patient, every one is treated as if he or she is the most important person in Carpenter’s life.  And when she loses a patient,  it’s always a devastating, shattering and life-altering experience. They’re never forgotten; they’re another meaningful learning experience that reminds her how fragile life is – confirming her mission and the reason she became a doctor.

Carpenter plans on taking on more assignments with MSF. For the time being, she’s back in civilization, working with the JWCH Institute Inc., a private, nonprofit health agency catering to the underserved in downtown L.A.

Doctors Without Borders Could Use Your Help
Donations are always welcome. The non-profit organization is short on the following health-care professionals: Obstetricians/gynecologists; anesthesiologists/nurse-anesthetists; HIV/AIDS and TB Specialists; and nurse-midwives/certified midwives. To learn more, visit www.doctorswithoutborders.org.

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