For two weeks, James Coffin left the comforts of Ball State and entered a different land, one where students help with surgery and witness AIDS patients die daily.
Coffin, director of Ball State's Center for International Programs returned last week after leading 60 American pre-medicine students on a two-week, hands-on tour of medical facilities in South Africa.
Coffin said he was one of two leaders chosen by the National Youth Leadership Forum to direct its International Mission on Medicine for his past experience with similar field studies programs and for his experience in anthropology.
"They thought somebody who had a perspective on bicultural dynamics and multicultural dynamics would be a good leader," Coffin said.
According to Coffin, a multicultural perspective is very important because many South African health programs incorporate modern medicine with traditional healers, who are licensed by the government.
"It's not that a traditional healer and a doctor are mutually exclusive anymore," he said. "They work together as a cooperative team."
Traditional healers are important because many South Africans personalize disease causation, Coffin said.
"People understand that germs, viruses and bacteria are a part of disease causation," he said. "But they take it one step further and say, 'What spiritual power is controlling the germ and using it as a weapon against me?'"
From Jan. 4 to Jan. 18, Coffin and his group visited 15 medical facilities. Many of them were under-manned, according to Coffin. At one of the first hospitals the group visited, 12 students were asked to help in surgery.
"They hadn't been in Africa for more than 12 hours, and they were suturing patients in surgical rooms," Coffin said.
Joanna Thomas, a junior pre-med student at Butler University visited South Africa with Coffin. She said South African doctors are "ingenious when it comes to making do with what they have." She said she saw doctors setting broken bones with blood-pressure cuffs.
Many of the hospitals, especially those in Cape Town, were high-tech, modern facilities, Coffin said. He also said most of the rural clinics, however, have been hit hard by poverty, the legacy of Apartheid and AIDS.
According to Coffin, an estimated 40 percent of South Africans have AIDS. At the Valley Trust Clinic the group visited, 25 people a day die of AIDS and tuberculosis. Coffin said some students witnessed patients die.
The AIDS problem is compounded by government denial and South African myths, he said.
The South African government denies that HIV and AIDS are related and refuses to give the drug AZT to rape victims. This is frustrating, Coffin said, because many South Africans believe having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. As a result, AIDS victims are raping children. Fortunately though, many hospitals are defying government policy and distributing AZT to rape victims, Coffin said.
Coffin said he valued the networking he was able to accomplish with South African doctors, hospitals and universities and wants to create a field course to South Africa for Ball State students.