Chatham student picked for medical mission to Guatemala

August 14, 2008

More than sixmonths ago, Erin Paschel applied for a spot as a volunteer on a Surgicorps trip to Guatemala. She was one of four Chatham University physician assistant students chosen, and once she was accepted, she raised $2,500 to cover the cost of the trip.

Ms. Paschel, 26, of Bethel Park, leaves Saturday. It will be her first time outside North America, and her first opportunity to treat those who live without access to the medical care readily available in the United States.

Despite all the planning, waiting and fundraising, Ms. Paschel said the decision to volunteer was a no-brainer.

“This type of opportunity doesn’t come around very often,” she said.

To afford the trip, she said her family and friends helped, she added on to her student loan and got some help from U.S. Congressman Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills.

Surgicorps is a Pittsburgh- based medical mission that has completed more than 30 trips since it was founded in 1994 by Jack Demos, a plastic surgeon in Pittsburgh. The mission provides free surgeries to people in underdeveloped countries.

Next week in Guatemala, five Surgicorps surgeons will perform plastic, gynecological and general surgeries. The group will spend seven days at a hospital and orphanage in Antigua, a city of about 37,000 in the central highlands of Guatemala.

Ms. Paschel will assist. She is halfway through the two-year physician assistant program at Chatham. She also works as a first assistant in neurosurgery at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland.

The trip will count as one of the nine clinical rotations students must complete to graduate. Ms. Paschel said she expects the trip to be a different experience.

“It’s going to be a big culture shock coming from [a country] where medical care is taken for granted,” she said.

“I think the biggest struggle will be seeing how impoverished people are.”

The group consists of 48 volunteers. About half do not have medical experience, but will help in the orphanage and with post-operative care, Surgicorps coordinator Linda Esposto said.

The volunteers will stay in a hotel in Antigua, near the Obras Sociales del Hermano Hospital. Return date is Aug. 23.

Physician assistants are licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician. They are mid-level practitioners who can perform many of the same duties as a physician, but study for fewer years and do not go to a traditional medical school.

It’s an ideal career for Ms. Paschel, who has also studied as an undergraduate at Allegheny College and in a post-bachelor, pre-med program at Duquesne University.

“She’s wanted to go into medicine since she was 5 years old,” said her mother, Marsha Paschel.

Ms. Paschel started the program at Chatham a year ago. Of the 49 students in her class, about one fourth applied for the four spots on the Surgicorps trip, Chatham clinical coordinator Heidi Felix said.

The others chosen to go are Lisa Henderson, of Hampton and Kristen Rosati, of Center Township, and Julia Estes, of Meadville.