FROM PENICILLIN TO PNG: 120 years of medical achievements
The oldest student society at the University of Adelaide has much to celebrate this year. Candy Gibson reports.
Much has been written about the University of Adelaide's most brilliant medical graduate in its 135-year history, Nobel laureate Lord Howard Florey.
He is the man credited with changing the course of medicine and human history with his development of penicillin as the world's first antibiotic.
Lord Florey also happens to be the most famous name among an illustrious list of Adelaide Medical Students' Society presidents since its foundation in 1889 - leaving his successors with very big shoes to fill.
This year, his contribution and that of thousands of other medical students is being honoured to commemorate the 120th birthday of the Adelaide Medical Students' Society (AMSS).
As the oldest - and most active - student society on campus, the AMSS boasts a roll-call of past committee members and office bearers who have gone on to become national and international leaders in the world of medicine.
More importantly, the Society's history of charitable works has benefitted many worthy medical causes over the past century.
The current crop of beneficiaries includes Oxfam, the Red Cross, Insight (a student-run global health organisation), World Vision, the Royal Flying Doctor Service and Angel Flight.
In 2008 alone, the AMSS donated almost $25,000 to charity, thanks to a series of fundraisers which fulfilled the Society's social as well as philanthropic goals.
Since 2003, about 50 University of Adelaide final year medical students have also self-funded their elective placement at a hospital in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea, in the Enga Province.
Kompiam District Hospital is run by Dr David Mills, an honorary lecturer at the University of Adelaide, who introduces students to the coalface of medicine in a developing country.
"From a purely medical point of view, they are exposed to everything - malaria, typhoid, infant diseases, pneumonia and the legacy of tribal fighting which results in severe machete, bullet and spear wounds.
"They also get their hands dirty in theatre, performing operations, giving anaesthetics and delivering babies," Dr Mills said.
"The experience opens up the whole spectrum of what medicine is all about because until this point in their training they have only seen a western branch of medicine which follows a certain set of patterns. The PNG experience gives them a much broader picture because they are not only exposed to some serious illnesses and trauma, but also the factors that contribute to disease."
The 35-bed hospital at Kompiam is a six-hour harrowing drive from the nearest town, Mt Hagen, and serves about 40,000 people.
The site is powered by two generators, has only two full-time doctors and is woefully equipped and undersized. All the more reason why medical students are welcomed with open arms at Kompiam.
For Dr Jackie Boyd, the PNG placement back in 2005 proved a life-changing experience. An initial four-week stint was followed by an invitation to return to Kompiam as a full-time doctor for 12 months in 2007.
"It was an amazing year. It taught me to work in a resource-limited setting and become familiar with a whole array of diseases, not to mention learning a new culture and language. I would recommend it to anyone, medical student or not," Dr Boyd said.
Dr Andrew Perry, a graduate who is now working in emergency medicine at the Lyell McEwin Hospital in Adelaide, is a former committee member of the AMSS and also a member of the 'Kompiam Alumni'.
His PNG placement in 2003 and a visit to India the same year planted the seed for a new medical student organisation to raise both funds and awareness of health needs in developing countries.
Insight came into being in 2004 as an arm of the AMSS. Now a stand-alone global health group, Insight has worked in conjunction with the Society to raise more than $60,000 to build a student medical house at Kompiam for the sixth-year interns.
Its fundraising efforts have also resulted in the $7000 purchase of mosquito nets for malaria-ravaged communities in the Enga Province.
The next step in the Kompiam story is an ambitious plan to build a new 70-bed hospital with dedicated tuberculosis, HIV, paediatric and maternity facilities.
Thanks again to a medical student fundraiser, the daunting task of raising $2.6 million needed for this project has got off to a dream start.
While addressing an Insight fundraising dinner in Adelaide back in 2006, Dr Mills met a team member from Engineers Without Borders. Dr Mills fished out the engineer's business card some months later when he needed a lifeline - volunteers to help approve and build the new hospital.
The engineer went one better, teaming up with Architects Without Borders in a joint project to provide the equivalent of $750,000 in consulting fees and man hours to date.
"We now have a full master plan of the new hospital site, with voluntary input from a whole range of professionals," Dr Mills said. "The latest design and engineering skills have been employed in this project to work in harmony with the environment and the power restrictions we face. It's just been an amazing process and I'm really humbled by the generosity of so many people."
This spirit of giving has been a constant of the AMSS for the past 120 years and will be formally acknowledged with the launch of an AMSS Philanthropic Foundation at the National Wine Centre on 18 September.
The foundation will invest the AMSS's budget surplus each year which, combined with alumni donations, will help fund new scholarships, books and equipment, as well as continue existing charitable works.
Current AMSS President Mark Hassall said the Society had a lot to celebrate this year.
"We represent the interests and passions of more than 900 full-time medical students at the University of Adelaide from across all six year levels," he said.
"It's important that students not only embrace their education and training while at University, but get a chance to contribute to their community - and have fun along the way. Hopefully we are achieving all these goals," Mark said.■
For more information on the 120th birthday celebrations of the AMSS, email email@example.com