by Dami Akande

“It was originally a joke,” Matt Sumethasorn tells me regarding his cross-country roadtrip with fellow DWW alumni, Daniel Boctor. The duo spent two and a half weeks this summer traveling across the West Coast to Canada and back down into the states to visit national parks as a final hurrah before starting medical school this fall. On their 5,000 mile journey, the two were able to bond with each other along with the fellow DWW alumni they visited along the way. Weeks later, they are now one month into their first year of medical school. I was fortunate enough to catch up with the two and learn more about their time with DWW and the impact it left on them.

Meet Matt:

When Matt Sumethasorn first began volunteering with Doctors Without Walls, medical school was the furthest thing from his mind. Three years ago, he received an email regarding the chance to apply to be a packs volunteer with DWW. As a pharmacology major teaching a pharmacology lab, working with Packs, the section of DWW dealing with medicine and pharmaceuticals, seemed like the perfect opportunity to gain real-world experience to share with his students. Little did he know, a new passion and calling awaited him.

“It was through my work with DWW that I found out I wanted to do medicine,” Matt tells me, “each year I found myself in positions that involved more and more patient interaction.” As he went from packs to scribes followed by companion care, Matt discovered that he enjoyed patient contact and only wanted to further the extent to which he received it. Now, as a first year medical student at Keck School of Medicine of USC, he is able to do just that.

While medical schools do provide training to physicians regarding how to interact with patients, Matt is grateful for his time at DWW for already granting him this through working with the homeless patient population. “The cracks we see in our healthcare system is really amplified in the homeless population,” he shares, “you see everything that’s not working, you see everything that’s ugly with a magnifying glass.” Motivated by his experience with this patient population, Matt is hoping to continue the work he began in Santa Barbara by taking the practice of street medicine to Los Angeles with hopes of getting his fellow students involved.

As he reminisced about his time with DWW, Matt recalled multiple lessons he learned that are playing an active role in shaping him into the doctor he desires to be. Matt identifies non-judgemental listening as an essential practice developed during his time at DWW. He describes it as the act of coming into each patient encounter with a fresh mind free of preconceived notions. He encourages fellow healthcare professionals to treat every case like it’s their first in order to be fully present and ready to genuinely listen to what the patient has to say. “Medicine, sure it’s a science, but it’s also an art,” he explains,“you can treat physical chronic illnesses all you want, but if you’re not treating underlying social aspects and not addressing basal concerns or fears, you’re not gonna get them to come back or listen to your advice. You need to form connections.”


Meet Daniel:

Growing up in Cairo, Egypt, Daniel Boctor grew a heart for the plight of the underserved from a very young age. He recalls the country’s wealth disparity, which leaves a large portion of the country’s population living below the poverty line. Additionally, the population experienced exponential growth, heightening the severity of the poor living conditions. He shares, “People were living in cemeteries and building homes from trash. Hospitals did some studies and discovered that people had extreme diseases such as TB just from the living conditions. No one should ever grow up in such an unhealthy environment.” By the time Daniel left Cairo to attend UCSB in the states, he was certain he wanted to do something about it.

Daniel was working on receiving his EMT certification when he first heard about DWW. One day in class, there was a guest speaker who was none other than DWW’s medical director, Dr. Jason Prystowsky. Dr. Prystowsky spoke about his work with DWW and encouraged those that wanted to get involved to speak with him. Since then, Daniel has spent three years with DWW working with vitals as well as serving as parks coordinator.

Throughout his time with DWW, Daniel was greatly influenced by the relationships he built with fellow volunteers- students and clinicians alike. He commends the clinicians recalling their willingness to step into the mentor role. “Every single one is an incredible person, no exception,” he states, “they want to teach no matter how busy they are; they make time to talk to students. It was the first experience that really humanized physicians for me.” Daniel speaks just as highly of his peers, sharing that they’ve become some of his best friends.

Similarly to Matt, Daniel is also hoping to continue the work he began in Santa Barbara, but this time in Chicago as he attends Rush Medical School. When asked what advice he’d give to current DWW volunteers, he states, “The main thing I would say is that as a student or even as a physician or any healthcare professional, no matter how good you are you’ll face situations where there’s really nothing else you or anyone can do. And I think the skill of accepting that and being honest about it to the patient and not giving false hope is so important. The best tool we have as healthcare professionals is honesty. Even if you’re faced with a situation where there’s nothing else you can do, you can still show them that they matter. There’s still room for you to show them how much they matter. There is no limit to it.”