A return trip to Madagascar with Dr. Richard Roach allows former professor and resident to ‘reconnect to the heart of medicine’

Drs. Chris and Brooke Sweeney
Drs. Chris and Brooke Sweeney joined Dr. Richard Roach in Madagascar in October and got the chance to reconnect with Malgasy physicians they first met 15 years ago.

When they visited the island nation of Madagascar in 2004, the experience was life-changing for Drs. Brooke and Chris Sweeney, one that shapes their approach to medicine to this day.

At the time, they were newly engaged, Brooke was fourth-year resident in the Medicine-Pediatrics Residency Program at Michigan State University Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies (MSU/KCMS), the predecessor to WMed. Chris was a member of the MSU/KCMS faculty in the departments of Medicine and Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

“We’ve always talked about Madagascar,” Brooke said. “It has been formative in how we have approached life and our careers.”

The tropical medicine rotation in Madagascar for WMed faculty and residents has been in place now for almost two decades thanks to Dr. Richard Roach, associate professor in the Department of Medicine. For Dr. Roach, who will officially retire from WMed on June 30, 2020, the visits to Madagascar spark a cross-cultural exchange where Malagasy physicians teach WMed faculty and residents about tropical diseases and WMed physicians provide updates on the latest treatments for things like diabetes, hypertension and strokes, among other things.

Drs. Chris and Brooke Sweeney
The Sweeneys' two daughters, ages 10 and 13, joined them on their return trip to Madagascar.

“Madagascar is an interesting place but more of it is Dr. Roach and his passion and compassion and how he approaches it,” said Brooke, who is now an associate professor of Internal Medicine-Pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and serves as medical director for Weight Management at Children’s Mercy-Kansas City. “He approaches it from this deep, life-changing educational experience that makes you a better physician.”

It was those memories and that experience from 2004 that prompted the Sweeneys this past October to return to Madagascar, to join together again with Dr. Roach. They brought along their two daughters, ages 10 and 13, to be by their side and see firsthand the work they do as physicians in a place that will forever hold special meaning.

As the Sweeneys and residents and faculty from WMed worked with Malagasy doctors and saw patients at the bedside, the Sweeneys’ children were able to be with the care team and be a part of what was a family atmosphere in the clinical setting.

“Having them with us, getting to see the experience through their eyes, made it all brand new again,” said Chris, who is now an associate professor of Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and section chief for Combined Internal Medicine-Pediatrics at UMKC and Children’s Mercy-Kansas City. “I think that was really fun to be able to see that and see each of our children kind of having their own realization about this exotic place.”

Drs. Chris and Brooke Sweeney
The Sweeneys first visit to Madagascar was in 2004.

“Watching our children experience all of that was really cool but our kids also got to see us as our best selves as physicians,” Brooke said.

The Sweeneys said their return to Madagascar gave them the opportunity to reconnect with Malagasy physicians they met in 2004. They also got to see how much medicine and medical care have advanced in the country over the last decade and a half and how the annual visits organized by Dr. Roach with SALFA have helped improved patient care for the entire country.

But even more importantly, the Sweeneys said the three weeks they spent in Madagascar was in many ways rejuvenating for both of them. It reminded them, they said, of what is important in medicine and all of the reasons why they each decided to become a physician.

It also allowed them, they said, to step away from the normal grind of their day-to-day work and focus – just for a moment – on the joy of teaching and learning.

Drs. Chris and Brooke Sweeney
The Sweeney family and Dr. Richard Roach.

“For me, seeing my kids in that environment and seeing Chris in that spot again was very precious to me,” Brooke said. “It’s like you reconnect to the heart of medicine and being there was healing in more ways than any book or lecture could ever be.”

“It boils down to the best parts of academic medicine,” Chris added. “You see patients and engage with patients and puzzle through patients’ ailments with residents. Everyone is teaching and learning and that does a lot to address burnout because it just reconnects you with why we do what we do and it reinforces all of those original ideas that we had when we were applying to medical school and residency.”

The Sweeneys said their time in Madagascar in October helped them refocus on what’s important in their professional and personal lives. It also helped them, they said, to be ready for what would come after their return home when the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. earlier this year.

“It serves as a reminder that what we do is all about connecting with our patients on a human level and connecting with the whole person,” Brooke said. “You come back more calm and your priorities are more aligned both at home and at work.”