September 12, 2011

Albion physician ready for next Doctors Without Borders trip

Lovejoy Health Center doctor to depart on new assignment

BY WANDA CURTIS, Correspondent

Children have a way of capturing the heart.

That's why Albion physician David Austin will soon make his fourth trip overseas to work with Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian organization that provides medical care in more than 60 countries.

He said the most satisfying part of practicing medicine in underdeveloped countries was helping children destined to die without treatment "recover and return to health -- and seeing the joy this brought to their parents."

One young girl he treated, about 8 or 9 years old, was in a coma and near death when he first saw her, Austin said.

"The family had given up and was praying at her bedside," he said. "She recovered. I don't know if it was the prayer or the medicine."

After practicing for 15 years at Lovejoy Health Center in Albion, Austin traveled to Sudan in 2008 for about six months. In 2009, he worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and after that Haiti in 2010.

"It was incredible working with people from all over the world," Austin, 57, said.

The facilities were primitive, he said, and one clinic in Congo had birds nesting in the rafters.

"We practiced medicine in Africa with very limited diagnostic technologies," Austin said. "We could perform a rapid test for malaria, test for anemia, and that was about it -- no X-ray, bacterial cultures. We did have excellent medications to treat malaria, meningitis, pneumonia and most infections. So the diagnostic work relied on clinical assessment primarily."

One of the most difficult experiences for Austin was helping with obstetrical care in Sudan where many women attempted births at home. Some women would travel to the hospital after babies had already died in the womb.

"That was difficult to deal with," Austin said.

One important lesson he learned abroad is that "there are wonderful people all over the world."

"The poorer that people are the more they share what they have," he said.

He was especially impressed by the attitudes in Africa. "There is a strong spirit of joyfulness in many of the Africans that I consider priceless," he said.

Austin didn't plan a medical career after he graduated from Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield in 1972.

His interest in medicine began when he was in graduate school studying education and his stepfather, William Springer, was diagnosed with cancer. He returned home to help his mother, Evelyn Springer, with the terminal illness. Austin later graduated from the University of Vermont Medical School in 1985.

Each time that he travels overseas, Austin resigns from his position at the health center not knowing if a position will be open when he returns. He doesn't know yet where his next assignment will lead him but is anticipating another rewarding experience.

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