An ASCP Volunteer’s Experience Abroad

I volunteered in April 2019 in Tanzania at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center. I was there specifically to teach breast mastectomy grossing. There are two pathologists at KCMC, Dr. Mremi and Dr. Patrick, but finding time in their schedule to work with them proved to be the biggest challenge. The pathologists have many responsibilities outside of just looking at slides. Dr. Alex Mremi is the head of the department, but he also teaches at the medical school and meets with medical students. The pathologists at KCMC perform autopsies, including the forensic autopsies that would normally be sent to a medical examiner or coroner’s office in the United States. Dr. Mremi was pulled away one day to do an autopsy and two other days to go to court to discuss autopsy findings. One of the days Dr. Mremi also performed an FNA, where he was not only preparing the slides, but procuring the specimen from the patient himself.

In the end I was able to go over one mastectomy case with each pathologist, but I had hoped to discuss my case study examples and talk to them about the differences in our grossing techniques in greater detail. When the pathologists were busy I would go over grossing techniques of the less complex specimens with the lab aides that perform grossing. Unfortunately the lab aides have responsibilities as accessioner, histotech, grossing aide, transcriptionist, etc. They do it all, so it was equally difficult to find time in their busy schedule. In addition to scheduling conflicts, there was also the issue of ventilation in the gross room. Because there is a window fan, but not proper ventilation, whoever is grossing could only be in the gross room for a limited amount of time before formalin exposure would be too much. I did bring a formalin 3m mask that was donated by a colleague of mine with some replacement cartridges that I hope they will implement into their routine.

In retrospect I wish I had known how difficult it would be to schedule my grossing time with both the pathologists and the lab aides. It takes a forceful and persistent personality to wrangle people into the gross room when they are bogged down with their other work. I wish I had known about this blog before my trip to Tanzania because this seems to have been previously stated by PAs. I would also recommend that the PA make sure to have all their transportation arrangements and initial appointments at the hospital set up in advance because you will essentially be dropped in a place with no Wi-Fi. I made sure to arrange all of this with the help of Alpa Pandya, Dr. Milner’s assistant, who was incredibly helpful. If you are able to exchange money in advance or schedule a trip to the bank with your airport driver this will be very helpful. The day I arrived was a Sunday so banks were closed. It was somewhat of a challenge to find a restaurant or local transportation that would take US dollars. I would recommend getting your visa before your trip because this may prove difficult to accomplish at the airport upon arrival. Be sure to get all the recommended vaccines and anti-malarial medicine if necessary in the area you are travelling. I was very surprised to see no mosquitos at all during my entire trip and find out that malaria is nearly eradicated in the Kilimanjaro region. I also had my clothing sprayed with an anti-bug spray that may have helped keep flies away from me. I would recommend people learn basic phrases (hello, thank you, please, etc.) in the language of the country they are visiting to be more respectful of the local people. Language apps such as Duolingo or Babel are a great help.

I recommend that if a PA is volunteering in a low resourced setting they find out exactly what would be most beneficial to the pathology department in that setting. Since my trip was more focused on breast mastectomy grossing I brought Lester, breast diagrams, templates, inking diagrams, breast protocols and procedures from my hospital, as well as multiple case examples. Some of which I laminated in advance so they could be used again and again in this setting. If I were to volunteer again I would try to set up a more concrete schedule in advance with exact times blocked out to discuss techniques, be in the gross room or give presentations. I am incredibly grateful I got to have this experience, I only wish I was able to make more of an impact. I hope that more PAs will continue to volunteer and that pathologists will participate in the telepathology volunteer roles to free up more time for the few pathologists in these low resource environments. Thank you again to ASCP, Dr. Milner and Alpa for this opportunity!

-Faith Fletcher is a Pathologists Assistant at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan.

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