A Shot in the Arm for Social Justice

by Christopher Martin ’98

The Negev, with its desert expanse of rocks and canyons, is hardly the first place that comes to mind when considering locales for medical school. But for Vidush Athyal '96, who recently completed his final requirements as a medical student at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the former home of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the ideal place to pursue his passion for providing medical care to underserved communities.

"Israel has the perfect mix of First- and Third-World cultures," said Athyal. "It provides a great transition for those who have never lived in a Third-World setting, but might want to work in one."

Athyal himself is no stranger to such conditions. Born and raised in India, he witnessed firsthand the need for quality medical care in regions ravished by poverty.

"In India, like in many countries, there are enough doctors in the cities," said Athyal. "But there is a great need for doctors in rural areas."

A need Athyal is prepared to meet. After completing grade school in India and high school in the United States, he returned to India to begin medical training, but soon found that his American high school education lacked much of the science training he needed. After a year studying religion at an Indian seminary and another year at a university completing his core science requirements, Athyal transferred to Azusa Pacific University to obtain a degree in biochemistry. While at APU, his interest in public health expanded following two trips to Mexicali, Mexico.

"The exposure I received in Mexico was extremely beneficial," Athyal said, "Because these experiences enabled me to practice what I wanted to do."

Before attending medical school, Athyal obtained a Master of Public Health from Loma Linda University. It was there he learned of the medical program in Israel.

"I had traveled to Israel with my family and wanted to go back someday," Athyal said. "As a Christian, I thought the land of Israel would be a great place to study."

Athyal's MD program was formed as a joint venture between Columbia University and Ben Gurion University to train doctors specifically for the practice of international health. In Israel, Athyal took the regular medical school courses along with additional training for humanitarian emergencies, refugee health, and preventive medicine for diverse populations.

According to Athyal, the first three years of the program are taught on the Ben Gurion campus in the town of Beersheba. Best known as the site where Abraham dug the "well of the oath," when making a covenant with Abimelech in Genesis 21, Beersheba is now a thoroughly modern city. The Negev desert location provided ample opportunities for Athyal to practice while he studied; the region is populated by nomadic Bedouin communities, as well as immigrants from Ethiopia, North Africa, and the former Soviet Union.

"We went into these communities and discovered how to best meet their needs," Athyal said. "Providing care to these communities was a great experience."

After completing his fourth year in the program, Athyal returned to the United States for his board exams and to complete his electives at Columbia University. He graduated in May 2003 and plans to participate in a residency program in the U.S. Though he eventually wants to practice medicine in India, Athyal understands the value of listening for whispers from God.

"There are so many places that need better medical care that you have to really make sure that you are going where God is calling you," Athyal said. "Right now, I am waiting to see where He leads me."

Christopher Martin '98 lives in Washington, DC. christophermartin@clearchannel.com