Volunteer Work in Africa: Paying It Forward

Dr. Alan Barkun, Director of Endoscopy at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), is never too far from his suitcases. A veteran of humanitarian missions, he has already visited Ethiopia, Morocco and Myanmar, among others, to engage in clinical work and training.

“I have always been drawn to travel but especially to living in foreign countries,” says Dr. Barkun, who is also Chief Quality Officer, Division of Gastroenterology at MUHC. “I like to be confronted with different beliefs and habits. I think it makes me develop as a doctor and also as a human being.”

Dr. Alan Barkun

This summer, he participated in a two-week humanitarian mission to Kenya and Zambia to teach a procedure that consists in inserting a stent (a kind of metal tube) in patients with esophageal cancer. The stent allows patients to ingest drinks and crushed food to allow them to survive. Indeed, in some cases, esophageal cancer can be so advanced that the patient can no longer swallow anything, not even his own saliva.

Unfortunately, esophageal cancer is very common in both countries. Their inhabitants, who have a different relationship to illness than in our Western societies, do not necessarily think about rushing to the doctor for treatment at the first signs of discomfort. And when they decide to go, the cancer may already be more difficult to treat.

Dr. Alan Barkun

Accompanied by another doctor and also by his own 21-year-old son, a university student eager for adventure, Dr. Barkun taught stent insertion techniques to more than 50 doctors, nurses and residents, a rate of 25 stents in 5 days.

“I found the doctors and their teams very competent and resourceful under the circumstances,” says Dr. Barkun. “Of course, they don’t have the same access to the equipment we have here, but their level of knowledge is amazing, thanks to the Internet. Their dedication to their patients is boundless. I am always amazed by their courage and their willingness to share.

Having just returned home, Dr. Barkun is already thinking about his next humanitarian destination; he will go to Morocco for further teaching sessions.