Pre-med student savors lifetime opportunity interning at Chilean hospital

Photo of McDaniel student Rowail Khan in Santiago, Chile
March 09, 2017

Rowail Khan’s pre-med internship in Santiago, Chile, intensified what already was her passion for medicine, but she also hopes it serves as an empowering example to other science majors that study abroad is indeed within their reach.

The experience, through IES Abroad, was perfect for Khan, a sophomore Biology major with a minor in Chemistry. Study abroad can be more complicated to arrange for students majoring in a science because of lab courses and prerequisites. But studying abroad is important to Khan, so she used the three-week Jan Term and has arranged her semester schedules so that she can spend a semester at McDaniel’s Budapest campus during her junior year.

“It was a hands-on experience and definitely worth doing. I want everyone in the Biology and Chemistry departments to go abroad,” she says. “I got to experience everything from being able to navigate my way through Santiago like a local to studying in a classroom and learning about healthcare policies all the way to standing over an operating table and seeing someone’s organs.”

Khan’s plans took a surprising turn to pediatrics when she discovered she loves working with kids — infants to teens, disabled or not, sick or well.

 “Everything I do is toward my goal of becoming a doctor,” says Khan, who has wanted to become a doctor since sixth grade. “But no one, including me, thought I would consider pediatrics. Kids just didn’t interest me.”

Rowail KhanThen, one day during the three-week internship, Khan traveled an hour and a half to a small clinic in a village on the outskirts of Santiago. The line of villagers waiting to be seen stretched out of the clinic door. The waiting room was packed. Khan was separated from the other interns, and when she couldn’t reconnect with them, she went out into the waiting room to get to know the people.

“My Spanish was too limited to talk with the adults so I made friends with the little kids,” she says. “I showed them different Snapchat filters and played with them. A nurse from the clinic joined us and helped translate for me to learn about the people.”

She discovered that these families have no doctor-patient relationships — they have no bond with their doctors as Khan had known growing up in Westminster, Md. The realization changed her direction.

“That made me want to work with kids in communities that are understaffed with doctors, perhaps in another country,” says Khan, who is also a McDaniel Global Fellow. “I would certainly consider going back to Chile as a doctor.”

It was however only one of several life-changing moments during Khan’s Jan Term abroad. The internship involved three days a week in the hospital or a clinic and two days of classes, among them Survival Spanish. Her language studies were completely in the spoken word and included medical Spanish — importantly, she learned the word for “pain.”

She spent time in maternity and watched the delivery of a baby. Khan also spent time rotating with her fellow interns at different clinics and hospitals.

“It was like doing rotations in med school. We saw every specialty,” she says.

During her time in the operating room, she stood by the side of a surgeon performing surgery on the digestive tract of a patient. After watching for 10 minutes, she thought she recognized it as a complex and extremely long surgery known as a whipple. The doctor, obviously surprised, confirmed Khan’s suspicions.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that, my whipple experience,” she says, still smiling at the memory more than a month later and explaining that she’s always wanted to become a surgeon. “I was so intrigued that I just didn’t care that I was standing for hours — it was really, really cool.”

Since the internship was a total immersion opportunity, Khan truly expected the people in a capital city such as Santiago to speak English. Born in Pakistan, she speaks English, Hindi and Urdu, but not Spanish.

“The people of Santiago are immersed in their culture and do want to speak their own language. So, no, they didn’t speak English,” Khan says, adding that she is now taking Spanish at McDaniel. “I love the language. I don’t want to forget anything I learned there so I want to continue learning it. I even listen to Spanish music now.”

The immersion extended to Khan’s home away from home in a 13th-floor apartment with a Chilean family — a 62-year-old grandmother and her family — in the center of the city, a two-minute walk from the school. Each of the 17 interns from colleges all over the U.S. stayed with a different Chilean family but quickly became the best of friends.

“We learned about a completely new culture and language not as tourists but by living with local people and being totally surrounded by it,” she says. “I loved it so much — I wouldn’t change a single thing.”

Already the group is planning reunions and Khan is Facebook friends with three of her professors from the program.

“Basically I met 16 kids just like me,” she says. “We became forever friends in three weeks.”

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