Before John-Michael Leach left for a semester abroad in Ecuador last fall, the Reading, Mass., native had never traveled much farther than New Hampshire. So when he arrived in the capital city of Quito, he was blown away.
“It was so exciting to me,” recalls the senior biology major. “I just wanted to get out there and walk around and talk to people.”
That trip was the beginning of a transformation for Leach. He had come to Suffolk more to play hockey than to hit the books. But from that point forward, he not only caught the travel bug, but he dove into his schoolwork like never before.
“[Ecuador] was where I really changed,” says Leach. “I started looking and seeing this whole big world outside.”
Today, Leach is building on his Suffolk coursework and experience as a Boston EMT to cultivate a growing interest in international medicine. This past summer, he traveled to Ghana with an NGO called Operation Groundswell, which bills itself as a “non-profit organization that offers travel and community service experiences.” The trip opened Leach’s eyes to global health issues around the world.
Laying the Foundation
Before coming to Suffolk, Leach took a couple of years off to focus on hockey. But to re-acclimate to a classroom experience, he trained to become a certified EMT. That’s where he began developing an interest in science and medicine.
While stressful, he says the work is also incredibly rewarding.
“It’s definitely an adrenaline rush,” Leach explains. “When you get to a scene and see what’s going on, you have to very quickly process what to do without being careless or making mistakes. It’s nerve-wracking, but I love the feeling after you get there and having family members come up and say, ‘Thank you so much.‘”
Once Leach returned from Ecuador, he began reaching out more around campus. One of those new connections was Professor John Berg, director of the environmental studies program. It was Berg who presented Leach with the opportunity to travel to Ghana with Operation Groundswell.
Leach joined 10 other students with an interest or background in medicine, meeting with various health-related organizations in the country. The students met with local residents, including a group of HIV-positive women, and visited rural villages, many of which were mired in extreme poverty.
“It was something I’ve never seen before and something you can’t even imagine until you’re standing there and seeing it and smelling it,” recalls Leach.
Leach and the group spent three weeks in one village with a district hospital that serves 100,000 area residents with just one doctor on staff. Thanks to his EMT experience, Leach was able to pitch in and help treat patients.
“That was an amazing opportunity and something I really benefited from,” he says.
More To See, More To Do
Coming back to the States, though, brought a bit of culture shock. When he stepped into the ER of Tufts Medical Center during one of his EMT shifts, he was struck after looking in the supply closet.
“They had boxes and boxes and boxes of gloves, and at the hospital we were at [in Ghana], they didn’t have anything. They had very few gloves. Sometimes they would reuse certain pairs of gloves.”
Leach recalls one instance of scouring the hospital all night looking for basic pain medication for a patient. “It was nowhere to be found,” he says. “It was very difficult.”
For Leach, there is a sense of work left undone. While his advisor says he could finish up his degree by this summer, he’s planning to hold off until the fall so he can return to Ghana and work at a hospital there.
After graduation, Leach may explore the possibility of attending medical school. But either way, he’ll definitely be looking to put more stamps on his passport.
“It’s almost become an addiction,” he says of traveling. “I want to keep going and going and seeing more.”
Editor’s Note: Inspired by his Operation Groundswell trip to Ghana, John-Michael Leach will run in the New York City Marathon on November 3. He is hoping to raise $2,500 in support of Doctors Without Borders.
Inline photos courtesy of John-Michael Leach.