During countless hours of studying, six Feinberg medical school students bonded over interests in community service and dreamt of one day starting their own global health nonprofit. This idea took a back seat for more than 20 years as they pursued their careers, that is, until the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which acted as a catalyst to jump-start the Life is Great (LIG) Global Foundation.
“We all had this deep sense of giving back to the community―not just locally but throughout the world―and had a dream to do something meaningful once we were in a position to do so,” says Ernani Sadural, ’92 MD, chief medical officer of LIG.
While volunteering their medical expertise in Haiti, Dr. Sadural and his friends: Sarah Timmapuri, ’91 MD; Raghu Thunga, ’92 MD, ’96 GME; Francis McGeorge, ’90 MD; David Rhew, ’92 MD; and Eugen Kim, ’92 MD, met several like-minded medical and non-medical volunteers who laid the groundwork for the foundation’s formation. The mission of LIG is to deliver humanitarian relief and excellent health care to people in great need around the world by bringing together volunteers, supplies and technology.
Dr. Sadural, an obstetrician/gynecologist, and his wife Dr. Timmapuri, a cardiologist, practice in New Jersey. Dr. Thunga completed his anesthesiology residency and has a private practice in Chicago’s northern suburbs. Dr. McGeorge trained in emergency medicine and is a medical correspondent in Michigan. Dr. Rhew, an infectious disease specialist, lives in California; and Dr. Kim, an orthopedist, calls Ohio home.
In Sept. 2011, the foundation became a 501(c)(3)-designated corporation, with Dr. Thunga as chief operating officer and Dr. Timmapuri as chief executive officer. Olga Gorenyuk, ’07 MD, joined LIG as the chief financial officer and treasurer.
Soon after, the group partnered with other charitable organizations, community groups, medical schools and residency programs to make surgical trips to India and the Dominican Republic, and now has over 500 volunteers serving in 10 countries (Dominican Republic, Haiti, India, Philippines, Grenada, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Peru and the U.S.).
Dr. Timmapuri attributes their fast growth to word of mouth and the length of their trips. They range from five to nine days, where many other organizations require six months or longer time commitments.
“People have a strong desire to volunteer, but they may only be able to fit a week into their schedule,” she says. “We try to take care of the planning and logistics to make it easy for people to join us.”
The Foundation has completed more than 30 medical trips, distributing over $5 million of donated supplies, equipment and medications. Trips are tailored to the needs of the community and range from one or two volunteers to larger groups of more than 50.
Dr. Thunga describes these expeditions as personally enriching and rejuvenating.
“When we are on a trip, we are practicing medicine and helping people directly,” he explains. “A lot of times in private practice you get bogged down with materialistic gain; going to these countries, you are working with people who are giving of themselves. It refreshes me and allows me to help those who can’t help themselves. I also find it enjoyable because I am doing it with my friends.”
The foundation evolved from primarily conducting surgeries (ob/gyn, plastic, general, orthopedic, podiatry and wound care) to providing more services to the communities they visit. During a trip to the Dominican Republic, when teachers from a school for students with special needs asked for assistance, the team did medical check-ups and helped with educational activities.
“We try to address the needs of the communities―each country has its own challenges―as we are trying to create sustainable changes,” Dr. Sadural says. “By using technology, we can continue to communicate with the programs we started and administer services when we get there.”
Developing Public Health Initiatives
In addition to its service-oriented medical trips, LIG has focused on facilitating and developing population-health initiatives with local and national medical institutions in the various countries.
For example, LIG trained local community workers and nurses in India in VIA (visual inspection of the cervix utilizing acetic acid), an economical alternative to PAP smears in rural areas where there are no available laboratory facilities.
“There is a huge need for cervical cancer prevention, with access to routine PAP smears limited, so the Foundation set out to train communities on alternative approaches to diagnosing cervical cancer,” Dr. Sadural explains. “Establishing these types of programs has a larger impact.”
A 2009 LIG mission trip to the Koroput District, one of the poorest districts in India, located in the state of Orrisa, worked with the local branch of the Indian Medical Association. The team of two plastic surgeons, a general surgeon, a cardiologist, three gynecologists, three anesthesia providers, and two nurses conducted a surgical camp and a CME seminar.
In addition, LIG started to work with health promoters to create educational initiatives (healthy diet and cooking, limiting alcohol use and smoking) to prevent chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
LIG’s commitment to developing and nurturing close relationships with existing local healthcare institutions allows for leveraging of existing infrastructure to enable the success of larger public health initiatives and smaller service-oriented projects.
Increasing Impact through Technology
Life is Great uses technology to increase the reach and impact of its volunteers and international partners. With tele-health, electronic health records (EHR) and mobile-based ventures, geography has become less of a barrier to doctors and nurses providing care to patients in faraway places. Rather than focusing on getting patients to brick-and-mortar institutions, LIG is committed to bringing state-of-the-art medicine to remote locations to reach those most at risk.
In Iloilo, Philippines, LIG set up a telemedicine station in a public health clinic to lend cardiology support. Providers can perform EKGs and upload and send the results to experts at LIG for reading. The team also has established mobile cervical screening stations. Using a smart phone and attached camera, a photo of the cervix can be taken and sent to specialists at LIG for advice and diagnosis. All of this information goes into the patient’s EHR.
“We can reach more people using devices, video and audio through the Internet to do consultations, access electronic health records and observe exams and procedures,” says Dr. Thunga.
Expanding Services with Youth Program
With interest in these medical trips growing in volunteers under age 21, the team created a youth network that is being developed and implemented by undergraduate and medical students and residents collaborating internationally.
Dr. Timmapuri explains that younger volunteers provide value through their optimism and ability to solve problems differently. On a recent trip to the Philippines, four teen-aged volunteers downloaded LIG’s electronic health records mobile application onto their mobile devices, recording pertinent medical information that was then reviewed and authenticated by the volunteer physicians and nurse practitioners.
“The doctors had the ability to see an enormous amount of patients because they didn’t have to spend time doing paperwork,” says Dr. Timmapuri.
The youth network also helps document supply inventories and creates projects such as crafts to do with the children they meet on trips. The team at LIG has created a scholarship fund to support their ideas and projects.
“Whether their goal is to become a health professional or to be compassionate, I’m amazed by the contributions that are being made from kids and our non-medical peers. One of our goals is to train future physician leaders and give a sense of purpose,” Dr. Sadural explains.
In addition to starting the youth program, LIG is working to bring in clinical research volunteers to help facilitate studies on the populations the organization serves.
“Starting this foundation has been one of the biggest joys; it’s a pleasure to use our education from Northwestern in this way―to take the knowledge we gained and bring it to other populations that aren’t outside our front door and where there is a need,” Dr. Timmapuri says.
LIG continues to grow its network of volunteers. To learn more about how to get involved, visit ligglobal.org.