An Itch to Travel, and Cure the World - The Missourian: Feature Stories

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An Itch to Travel, and Cure the World

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Posted: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 12:30 am | Updated: 8:21 am, Wed Jul 23, 2014.

Life in America hasn’t been the same for Megan Fuhr, a 2012 graduate of Washington High School, since she returned from a study abroad trip this spring to Vietnam and Cambodia.

A premed/biomedical science major at Maryville University in St. Louis, Fuhr, went on the trip to build up her resume for when she begins applying to medical schools, but the experience had such a profound effect on her, that it has altered her career plans.

“I honestly believe once I get my MD and start paying off my loans, I will leave this country,” said Fuhr, daughter of Robert and Dena Fuhr, Augusta. “I want to put my God-given skills to use.

“I’m a Lutheran, so for me, I always believe that God is shaping me and giving me these opportunities — like going to Vietnam and Cambodia — to mold me into the doctor, the person he wants me to be, to be His tool. So for me the biggest realization on this trip is that my skills and abilities can be used in so many more ways and to much greater need outside of this country than in.

“That’s why, honestly, if I got the opportunity, I would leave in a heartbeat.”

Fuhr said right now her dream job would be working on the Mercy Ship that travels along the African coast providing free health care, like cleft palate and cleft lip surgeries.

‘Itch Can’t Be Completely Scratched’

Fuhr will be starting her junior year at Maryville this fall, but for two years already she’s been thinking ahead to applying for medical school and what she would need to do.

“There’s two main things you almost have to have to get in — research and study abroad,” said Fuhr. “It’s that competitive.”

So when Maryville offered a 10-day trip over her winter break of freshman year to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Fuhr signed up looking at it as “a trial run,” her first travel abroad.

On the trip she studied marine biology, tropical biology and ecology and subsequently fell in love with travel.

“I got back, and like two weeks later was like, ‘Where can I go? I need to leave!’ ” Fuhr remarked. “I don’t feel like the itch can ever be completely scratched.”

She continued to look for opportunities, and the trip Maryville offered to Vietnam and Cambodia included a course in Vietnamese medicine taught by a traditional medicine physician, which was ideal for her as a premed student.

Studying, Giving Back

Fuhr left on her trip May 7 and arrived in Vietnam May 9. It was just one week after finals.

She began the trip home May 31 and arrived June 2.

The trip included a week in Hanoi, a day trip to Ha Long Bay, a night on a boat in the South China Sea, a trip aboard the night train to Dong Hu, then a drive to Hue and later Hoann, Vietnam, and a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where the group spent eight days before returning to Hanoi for the flight home to America.

There were 16 people on the trip — three professors and 13 students from a variety of majors — business, communications, physical therapy, occupational therapy, nursing, photo journalism . . .

The courses the students could choose to take on the trip also were varied.

Fuhr’s medicine course provided information on acupuncture (which she experienced while she was there) and herbal medicines. Part of the lesson included a trip to “Herb Street” where all the herbs were sold.

She also took two humanities courses — one taught by a Vietnamese professor about the history of Vietnam and how it came to be the country it is today, the other a more independent study class where she had to pick 15 places and write two-page papers on each one.

Part of the trip involved service learning, meaning the students were required to volunteer at different NGOs (nongovernment organizations).

For Fuhr, that is what really made the trip stand out over other study abroad options. “We were actually giving back. We left our mark on people halfway around the world,” she said.

Sights, Experiences

Fuhr hadn’t traveled much outside of Missouri before she made the trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, so much of what she saw and experienced was a big surprise.

“I was in such a culture shock when I first arrived,” she said.

“For one thing, pedestrians don’t have the right of way, so you have to bob and weave through all these motorcycles.

“In Hanoi, the capital, they have all asphalt black-top streets,” she said, “but they’re not blocks. They are more like this street runs into that one and this one curves into this one . . . Stop signs are more like suggestions. People don’t really pay attention to them, which is why you have to be cautious and vigilant when you’re crossing the street, because they won’t stop.

“I got swiped so many times, I just got used to it,” said Fuhr, noting it’s largely scooters and motorcycles, not cars.

“It can be pretty scary, especially when they decide to drive on the sidewalk,” she remarked.

Among the sights Fuhr saw in Vietnam was the DMZ line or demilitarized zone that separated the North from the South during the Vietnam War and underground tunnels where the Vietnamese would hide during bombings.

Fuhr said that part of the trip had special meaning for her since her Great-Uncle Wayne had served as an American soldier in Vietnam.

“Americans don’t see Vietnam as it is now. I think that’s just because of the negativity toward the Vietnam War that there was,” said Fuhr. “But the Vietnamese people are so welcoming. They want you to come, and the culture is beautiful. The architecture is beautiful. The city itself is beautiful. It’s not what you see in textbooks.”

Fuhr said her favorite part of the trip was volunteering at Friendship Village, an NGO in Vietnam that was started by an American soldier who served in the Vietnam War.

After the war ended, he returned to the country and started this for children who have physical and mental disabilities as a result of Agent Orange, the defoliant used by Americans in the war to kill the greenery so the Americans could see better, but it got into the water system and was ingested by the people, said Fuhr, noting there are still children born today who are affected by it.

“I was so blind to this before, I didn’t even think about it,” she said.

Children come to Friendship Village for four-year stays to learn things like how to cook, clean, do laundry, sew, garden, so they can go home and be a productive family member, Fuhr explained.

“They are incredible,” she said of the kids, who range in age from 6 or 7 years up to teenagers.

“I got to work one-on-one with a little girl for two or three hours who was just incredible. It was hard to leave that day.”

The kids stay on site. If it’s a more severe case, they can stay longer. One child was there for seven years, said Fuhr.

Their family can come to visit them, but usually they can’t afford it.

Other highlights of the trip were the visit to My So’n Sanctuary, a grouping of Hindu temple ruins that are still standing despite there being nothing holding the bricks together, and the Temple of Angkor Wat, in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

It’s the largest religious temples in the world, Fuhr noted.

She also was impressed to see a Christian church in the middle of a floating fishing village in Vietnam.

“Something like 10 percent of Vietnam is Christian, and out in the middle of this fishing village there was a Christian church. That stunned me when I saw it,” Fuhr remarked.

Challenges Were Many

The challenges were what any American might expect in traveling to such a different culture, but everything also was so exciting that it made up for any hardships, said Fuhr.

“There were so many different things, so many firsts on this trip . . . first time spending a night on a boat, first time on a night train, first elephant ride . . . . it was hard but it was so exciting, I just went with it,” she said.

The food was usually always pretty good, said Fuhr, although there were a few meals where she didn’t eat.

“The one meal I remember was a hot pot,” she said. “You sit in this little itty bitty room . . . they turn on the heating unit, it starts, boiling and there’s no air conditioning, everyone’s sweating. The meat is raw when it comes out. So you cook it, but at the same time, you don’t know where that’s come from.

“I didn’t eat a lot of that meal. I had Clif bars in my suitcase that I ate afterward.”

Almost every meal included Vietnamese spring rolls, which were good, said Fuhr. And there was rice at nearly every meal. Breakfast was always eaten at the hotels, so they were “Americanized” meals.

The language barrier was always an issue, said Fuhr, noting people she encountered rarely spoke English.

“Education there is a major problem. It’s a developing country, so they just don’t have the funds to do it,” said Fuhr.

No one in her group could speak the languages, just the guides who were with them.

That experience has made her much more empathetic to people who come to America not being able to speak English.

“This whole trip changed my perspective on so many things that I didn’t even realize until I came home,” Fuhr said.

“Language is definitely one of them, but how wasteful we are is another one. We can throw away a half-eaten meal and think nothing of it, while a whole meal that one person (American) would eat would feed a family of four in Vietnam.”

Her own habits of being wasteful is something that she’s trying to change, but she also has little patience when she sees it in others.

“I hate it when people waste food or complain at restaurants that their food is overdone or underdone . . . just eat your food!”

As a premed student at Maryville, one of Fuhr’s required readings has been “The Spirit Catches You When You Fall Down,” about a Laotioan child whose family came to America and she is extremely sick with epilepsy. Her parents didn’t comply with the medical treatment because they didn’t understand, explained Fuhr.

“What I took back is you have to be patient with people, because they’re trying,” she said. “They’re not meaning to be rude or to disobey . . . They are trying to understand. If you just take the time to explain it and make sure that they get it.”

Fuhr is taking the lesson a step further and writing her final research paper on how cultural education should go both ways.

“They (immigrants) come here, so they are just expected to know American culture . . . we also have to learn other cultures. We can’t just be stuck in our own world. That’s how I used to live.”

Cambodia Is Slow Paced

Compared to Hanoi, Vietnam, Cambodia had a much slower pace, said Fuhr.

“It’s bouncing back from the genocide in the 1970s,” she said.

Fuhr and the group were able to tour the killing field areas where an estimated 2 million people died from starvation, torture or execution.

“That was an emotional day,” said Fuhr. “Hard to think of that.”

She was struck by what she didn’t see during her visit to Cambodia — elderly people.

“I don’t think I saw one person over 60 while I was there because they were all killed,” said Fuhr.

Part of the group’s service learning in Cambodia was building houses for people. Fuhr described the houses as “wooden stakes with palm branches” for a roof. When it rains, water comes in. The floors are made of dirt.

Wants to Be Rural GP

Fuhr still has a good number of school years ahead of her — two years of undergrad, then four years of medical school, four or five more for a residency, then two, three or four more years for a fellowship, if she chooses to complete one — but she knows the type of doctor she wants to be.

“My goal is to be a rural GP (general practice physician),” she said.

“Growing up in Augusta, there’s such a huge need. The population in rural areas is increasingly aging and so there’s such a huge need.

“Plus, rural GPs get to do everything — emergency, obgyn . . . ”

After her travels, Fuhr knows that developing countries need the most help, and she wants to give it to them. Where will she go?

“The Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders, the Mercy Ship, anywhere,” said Fuhr, smiling.

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