How Visiting Devastated Haiti Led to Rebuilding a New Career

On January 12, 2010, an earthquake that killed more than 160,000 people and displaced about 1.5 million people struck Haiti. Shortly after, Mike Russell visited the devastated Haiti. That trip would lead him to the turning point of his life.

Russell grew up in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, a town of less than 2,000 people. He attended Kettering University to study chemical engineering and later worked for General Motors doing alternative energy research. Although both of his parents are physicians, his hopes were to make a career out of engineering, until his visit to Haiti.

“My dad was contacted by a disaster relief organization who needed help with health professionals,” Russell said. “I went with him and served as his triage nurse. Our clinic there would see about 100 to 150 patients a day. Some days we would treat patients in Port-au-Prince and one day we visited a village clinic out in the community.”

At the clinic, he met a 12-year-old boy who asked for water. Russell remembers noticing the boy was blind. An ophthalmologist was called over to examine him. The boy had lost his site due to a river parasite.

“I thought, here is the reality for two-thirds of the world,” Russell said. “A basic anti-parasite medication would have helped him, yet he is blind. They are living in conditions like this and don’t have access to medications available in other places. So it was then, that I came to the decision that either I could do engineering and work for General Motors and have a nice life in Michigan or commit to education, go to medical school and help people like this little boy. I chose to do medicine on a full- time basis. It was a turning point for sure.”

Although, Russell never got the boy’s name, he still has his photo as his screen saver. His photo is the constant reminder of why he has chosen the medical profession. Growing up, Russell’s parents would take a month each year and travel somewhere to treat the underserved instead of taking normal vacations. For his parents, trips to Honduras or Kenya were spent working in mission hospitals 60 to 80 hours a week while he would go play soccer.
But not until his trip to Haiti, did he fall in love with medical missions.

“I chose the career that I felt had the more human side,” Russell said. “The mission trips really solidified that for me.”

Six months after his Haiti experience, Russell met a team of surgeons all from various Texas schools. They spoke highly about the quality of Texas medical schools and the lower tuition rates. Russell headed to Texas for interviews including the TTUHSC School of Medicine.

“I almost turned a visit to Lubbock down,” Russell said. “Then I came out here and the people I interviewed with here sold me on it, and I loved it. I fit in here. It’s the people are that make a place, and Lubbock has a lot of really good ones. I couldn’t pick Lubbock out on a map before I got here.”

Before heading to Lubbock for medical school, Russell’s undergraduate schedule was hectic to say the least. He would study at the university every 11 weeks and switch between work and school. Moving between school at Michigan and working for General Motors in various locations led to academic burn out. He knew heading straight into medical school exhausted could possibly lead to him dropping out.

He contacted the School of Medicine and requested a deferral to make a humanitarian trip to ensure he was refreshed spiritually, physically and emotionally. During that time, Russell completed two different programs. One was a political-based program in Israel proper. This was an opportunity to see views from a political and religious perspective. Meeting with government officials and other individuals allowed Russell to see what the issues affecting Israel were from their perspective.

After this program, he visited the West Bank for 11 months teaching 4th and 6th grade Palestinian students English. Originally, he was supposed to teach high school chemistry and physics, yet ended up teaching English grammar, penmanship, art and also coached a soccer team in Israel.

“It was great working with kids and pouring your heart and soul into it,” Russell said. “You see what life is like for one of the most conflicted areas in the West Bank Palestinian territories. What a phenomenal experience. If we truly want peace, we have to make peace with the youth and bridge that gap.”

After completing his overseas trip, one month for the political program and teaching program for 11 months, he came to medical school for six months. At Christmas break, Russell went back to see the students for a month. Near Bethlehem, he along with other organizers completed a medical-relief trip for Syrian refugees living in northern Jordan. Russell recalled setting up a clinic for about two weeks. Those who visited the clinic had nothing. No resources. Their health issues ranged from hypertension to diabetes, and one child had a heart defect.

“There was a sweet kid about 6- or 7-years-old who had a heart defect with a short life expectancy,” Russell said. “An echo was done in Syria. Because of the war broken out in the area, there was no chance for surgery. The boy came to Jordan and within a day, because of our mission’s connections in the West Bank, a heart surgeon had offered his free services and all other costs would be taken care of. Surgeons from Tel Aviv would be Jewish. The family rejected the life-saving surgery. Because of the political distrust in that part of the world, anything affiliated with Israel was rejected, even if it could save their son’s life. That experience was one of the hardest things in my life to witness.”

This year Russell is leading the TTUHSC Student Government Association (SGA). The officers include Russell as president and also Monish Makena as vice president of communications, Cheyenne Mangold as vice president of operations and Terrance Rodrigues as vice president of finance. The SGA serves as the voice for students and focuses on a number of key projects.

“My entire life I’ve enjoyed doing as much as I possibly can,” Russell said. SGA is a place where you can truly serve as an advocate for student populations. We have so many TTUHSC health degrees that it’s a shame to isolate yourself, and serving in the SGA forces me to meet others in different groups and learn from their life experiences as well.”

Russell’s academic life now is in full swing. He is currently working on his MBA during summer months and also hopes to take next year off to complete a master’s degree in public health.

“I think there is a quote by runner Steve Prefontaine that is, ‘to give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice your gift’,” Russell said. “For me, for my gift, I was given my history of travel being able to see the world when I was younger. My best is dedicating a career in medicine or public health to the pursuit of the health care injustices we see around the world.”

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