January 06, 2015 | Grace Ruiter

This January, a group of Calvin pre-health students are taking their learning from the classroom to rural Malawi through a new partnership between Calvin and Mission to Heal, an organization that sends health care practitioners to developing parts of the world with high medical needs to treat patients and to train local health care workers.

The new partnership would not have come together without Larry Gerbens’ dedicated effort.

“We’d been talking about [this partnership] for a while, but unless someone can devote a lot of time and energy to them, projects like this often don’t happen,” said Don De Graaf, the director of off-campus programs. “Larry Gerbens was able to give that time and energy, so he really drove the partnership with Mission to Heal.”

Experiential learning

The trip is the first of many opportunities Gerbens hopes to organize through his new role as pre-health adviser.

In the position, which is currently undergoing a nine-month trial run, Gerbens will work to provide health and pre-health students with opportunities for experiential learning.

“I’m not really going to be an academic adviser,” Gerbens explained. “I’m advising on the big picture issues—putting together the opportunities for shadowing, volunteering, leadership and research that students need to get into graduate school.”

Filling a need

The new role brings together Gerbens’ roots in medicine—he practiced ophthalmology in the Grand Rapids area for more than 30 years—with his work as a gift officer at Calvin for the last seven years. During those years, he focused on developing scholarships for students going into healthcare professions.

“I had some success with development, but I really got hooked on the Calvin students that I worked with in that job,” Gerbens reflected. “I also saw how hard the health and pre-health faculty advisers work and wondered if there was a way to help.”

One in eight Calvin students is in a health or pre-health program. Gerbens realized that academic advisers didn’t have time to devote to organizing extra-curricular opportunities for so many students. As a pre-health adviser, he’s hoping to relieve them of that responsibility.

“In this day and age of HIPPA [Health Insurance and Accountability Act], experiential opportunities are hard to come by,” Gerbens said. “Simply volunteering at a hospital requires a background check, much less a job or shadowing opportunity. So I’ve been tasked with working with outside organizations and students to provide those opportunities to take that pressure off of faculty advisers.”

An exciting partnership

The partnership with Mission to Heal already has the potential to give Calvin students valuable experiential opportunities.

Mission to Heal is based on the work of 1964 Calvin graduate Dr. Glenn Geelhoed, who has been taking his medical knowledge across the globe for more than 40 years. Geelhoed will be leading the trip to Malawi.

Geelhoed came to the January Series, and since then he’s been taking Calvin pre-med students,” said Gerbens. “It’s been a transformative experience, so his organization and Calvin now have a memorandum of understanding around taking students on his projects.”

Calvin is the first school to sign such an agreement with Mission to Heal.

Medicine across cultures

“Dr. Geelhoed is pretty amazing in terms of expertise in surgery and students sometimes will assist him,” noted De Graaf. “I saw one presentation from a student that went on a Mission to Heal a few years back, and some of the things they got to see and do medically were pretty amazing.”

De Graaf, who worked with Gerbens to plan the trip to Malawi, added that students will also spend time reflecting on the cultural aspects of providing healthcare:

“At night, the students will have a chance to talk about their experiences and think about how the culture they’re in impacts healthcare. I think there’s also a part of the course where we’ll have them think about when helping hurts—about how to do this work in a way that is not condescending.”

Connecting with the community

In addition to the Mission to Heal partnership, Gerbens is working to secure opportunities for students in the Grand Rapids medical community. He also hopes to forge stronger connections with the admissions teams at graduate schools.

“I’m Calvin’s liaison to the medical community,” Gerbens said. “I’m connecting with people in the community, and systematizing and organizing opportunities for students to shadow and be mentored. So I have an inward focus on faculty and students, but my work is also directed outward at the community.”

Gerbens recently brought Roger Spoelman, the president and CEO of Mercy Health, to Calvin to speak to all the pre-health and health students and their advisers about the importance of collaboration between medical professionals in providing quality treatment.

“I heard him speak and thought it would be great for him to talk to pre-health students, so I arranged it,” he said. “I wanted to bring that paradigm of [collaboration in] medical care down to the undergraduate level.”

Supporting students

Gerbens is supporting students who want to organize healthcare-related events and presentations of their own as well:

“Mia Rienstra, a pre-med student, is doing a women in medicine panel, so she came to me asking for local women in medicine to be on the panel,” Gerbens recalled. “That’s where I was able to help a student in a program she took initiative to start herself.”

Ultimately, Gerbens says it is the chance to work with students like Rienstra that drew him to this position:

“I’m doing this because I love working with the students. They have really become my passion.”

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