For more than 30 years, Sue Abkowitz, MD, and her husband Glen Crawford, MD, hospitalist and orthopedist, respectively, have been spending a few weeks to a few months each year volunteering their time in countries such as Indonesia, Bhutan, Vietnam, South Africa, Ethopia, Kenya and Tanzania. They have built clinics, sent many 40-foot containers of medical equipment, supported educational and environment programs, developed sports programs and much more. They also have taken their children, even when they were toddlers, along for the ride each time.
Q: What led you to volunteer work, specifically work that would take you to another country for a prolonged period of time?
A: We spent three months at the end of medical school in 1985 in Tanzania doing elective rotations at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center (KCMC) and experienced amazing pathology and disease processes such as Tuberculosis meningitis, cerebral malaria, lion maulings, spear wounds and even human rabies. We met wonderful people and wonderful medical staff who worked with little or no resources to treat these patients.
Q: What country did you like best, and why? What were you able to accomplish there and how many times have you returned?
A: There is no way to answer this, it is like asking a parent which kid they like best. Each country has been wonderful and different and unique. We have loved discovering the countries, experiencing the cultures, and getting to know the people. When we first visited Bhutan in 1994, Glen was the only orthopedic surgeon for the whole Kingdom of 800,000 people, and I was one of only three internal medicine doctors. They were not used to seeing foreigners and had never seen people with blue eyes or even seen cameras.
The country we have been to most is Tanzania, and we have gone back now 16 times to KCMC. We sent eight 40-foot containers of medical equipment and supplies over the last 20 years with Sue’s organization, International Medical Equipment Collaborative (IMEC). The hospital now has fully equipped operating rooms, an emergency department, ICUs, and maternity and delivery suites. Also, Glen started an orthopedic teaching program there.
Q: How old were your children the first time you brought them on one of your volunteer missions? What was the reaction from friends and family to you bringing them with you when they were so young?
A: We went to Indonesia for three months with 3½-year-old Emily and 1-year-old Neil.
People here in the U.S. thought we were crazy, but they were a real hit abroad. In most of the places we visited, no one there had ever seen Caucasian babies. We went to Bhutan when they were ages 6 and 4, and to Transkei, South Africa, when they were 8 and 6. Matthew came along to Vietnam at age 9 months, where he was nicknamed “little Buddha.” Everywhere we went the kids were like magnets, everyone wanted to hold them and show them to their families.
Q: What is your proudest moment during all of your work in other countries?
A: It’s so hard to name just one moment since there are so many. I love going back to Tanzania and Kenya. It is so great to see the “before” (four babies sharing a makeshift incubator, two patients in each bed and on the floors, no x-ray or ultrasound) and the “after” or “now” (state-of-the-art incubators, high-tech ICU beds, ventilators, defibrillators, C-arm, complete modern ICUs). People ask us “why do you do all this without getting paid?” And my answer is simple: Our payment is the joy that we see in the doctors’ and nurses’ faces when they now know that they have the tools (physical and mental) to care for their patients.
Q: What advice do you have for young people who are considering such volunteer work?
A: It is the BEST!! You can see amazing pathology, meet wonderful people, explore other cultures, food, religions and help so many people. One of the things we enjoy is that you spend most of your time actually interacting with patients and practicing medicine, after all that is why we became doctors!
Want to know more about Sue and Glen’s adventures in global philanthropy? Check out this video that Glen put together during the COVID-19 pandemic.