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Student news: In Mongolia, connections create opportunities for improving healthcare

Amit Nimunkar and Lucas Vitzthum

Biomedical engineering PhD student Amit Nimunkar and 2009 graduate Lucas Vitzthum traveled to Mongolia in summer 2009 on a medical mission trip. Working in a government-funded public hospital in the capital city of Ulaan Baatar, the two assisted a U.S. surgery team and repaired medical equipment. (large image)

“I think it was a life-changing experience,” says Amit Nimunkar, of his summer 2009 medical mission trip to Mongolia. “For me, it was to see people’s life and death be hinged on some devices or equipment we take for granted in the United States.”

A doctoral student in biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Nimunkar spent 10 days in Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaan Baatar, while biomedical engineering alum Lucas Vitzthum stayed three weeks. Members of the UW-Madison Engineering World Health student chapter, the two traveled to Mongolia via earthMed as assistants to a U.S. thoracic surgery team that treated tuberculosis patients in Ulaan Baatar. Grants from the UW-Madison Multicultural Student Center, the Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate, an anonymous donor via UW Foundation, the Carole Foster Scholarship (for Vitzthum), and the Department of Biomedical Engineering helped fund their trip.

Slightly larger in area than Alaska, Mongolia is bounded on the north by Russia and on all other sides by China. It is sparsely populated and rich in resources such as copper, coal and gold. Most of its industry is centered in Ulaan Baatar; outside urban areas, many of the country’s 2.9 million citizens farm or raise livestock. More than a third of Mongolians live below the poverty level.

For healthcare, there are both private and public, government-funded hospitals. The U.S. team worked in the latter and, on their “off” time, Nimunkar and Vitzthum (now a researcher at the University of Chicago) drew on their UW-Madison training in medical instrumentation to test and repair medical equipment at the hospital.

Often, such equipment as lung aspirators or patient monitors with blood pressure, pulse oximeter and EKG functions comes to the hospital via donations from abroad. “There’s a lot of equipment in Mongolia that they deemed as not working, or broken, or getting ready to throw out,” says Vitzthum.

Biomedical engineering PhD student Amit Nimunkar at a public hospital in the capital city of Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia.

Biomedical engineering PhD student Amit Nimunkar at the hospital (large image)

In fact, many of the hospital’s medical staff lacked the training to operate the equipment properly, or at all. “To us it was small, but to them, it was broken,” he says.

For each piece of equipment he and Nimunkar examined, they also developed simple instructions and warning signs. In addition, they offered basic training sessions for the hospital’s clinical and technical staff. “I think more than anything, there’s a demand for education about how to use the equipment correctly,” says Vitzthum.

In addition to equipment tune-ups and work with the surgery team, Vitzthum also visited a local technical university and laid groundwork for a collaboration with the UW-Madison Engineering World Health student chapter to develop, prototype and test low-cost medical equipment that will serve users in Mongolia. “They were kind of waiting for an opportunity like this,” he says.

Although he and Nimunkar both have medical missions experience — Vitzthum spent summer 2008 working in Tanzania, and the two hope to travel to other countries in the future — they arrived in Mongolia wondering whether they’d be able to help. In the end, however, both were gratified they could make contributions. “I was kind of surprised at how much we were able to do there and how badly they need people,” says Vitzthum. “The difference between our healthcare and their healthcare is amazing.”