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West Meets East on an Enlightening Medical Co-op in China

By: Ben Seal

February 7, 2017

Peter Ngo ready for work at Renji Hospital.

Drexel biology student Peter Ngo at Renji Hospital during his co-op in Shanghai.

This is one of a regular series profiling Drexel students and their co-ops. 

It took a trip halfway around the world for Peter Ngo to find his future.

Ngo, a senior biology student in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, spent six months on a co-op in Shanghai, shadowing nurses and physicians and volunteering at an orphanage on the side. He knew going in that he wanted to be a doctor, but stepping into a clinical environment in a foreign nation gave him a sense of the emerging role globalization plays in medicine and the paths he could take in his career.

“I used to think that medicine is just one person running the show,” said Ngo. “A physician is the leader, but a physician relies on advice from his staff, from nurses, from physician’s assistants, and I want that. I want to be a part of that network.”

Ngo’s co-op at the Shanghai University of Medicine and Health Sciences gave him the chance to work in a variety of departments in multiple hospitals, including a children’s hospital. On some days he provided morning care — taking patients’ vitals, keeping a close watch on their progress — and on others he observed the operation of specialized departments, such as one treating dialytic patients.

More than anything, the presence of both Western and Eastern medicine in China caught Ngo’s attention. He went in curious about the dynamics between the two ways of thinking and came back inspired by what he saw. His parents grew up in Cambodia and their families were from Hong Kong, so he has been on the receiving end of holistic medicine. When he was sick as a child, his grandfather gave him porridge with ginger and garlic to help with digestion and alleviate headaches. He watched the remedy work in his own body and was happy to see a similar approach taken in the Shanghai medical community.

“It was surreal to get back to my roots,” said Ngo. “This experience reinvigorated my passion for medicine.”

After seeing how the medical community operated during his first trip to mainland China, Ngo said he feels there is room for growth on both ends of the spectrum. Chinese doctors could stand to adopt more Western ways of thinking, because there is room for improvement on techniques and methods used for delivery of care. At the same time, Western doctors might benefit from incorporating more holistic medicines, such as goji berries, which serve as anti-inflammatories, among other uses.

“I’m really glad that China is keeping that type of thinking alive,” said Ngo. “Most people think it’s old-fashioned, but old-fashioned is good.”

In his time volunteering at the Shanghai Healing Home, an orphanage that cares for babies born with surgically correctable deformities, Ngo had a profound experience. Three or four times each week, separate from his co-op responsibilities, he went to the orphanage early in the morning but, as he said, quickly became “completely awake” because of the spirit of the children he helped treat. Some needed nebulizers to breathe or anti-inflammatory medication to protect their vulnerable bodies, and some simply needed to be fed or entertained. Being around the kids put pediatrics front and center in Ngo’s mind as he approaches the end of his time at Drexel and prepares for medical school.

Ngo plans to take a gap year after college and may end up back in Shanghai, either as a teacher or caretaker. After spending six months working in hospitals, he knows where he’ll end up in the long run.

“Drexel is a place that really values civic engagement and community service, and medicine is, for me, the best form of civic engagement,” said Ngo. “There’s nothing more profound than getting to wake up and say to yourself, ‘Today I’m going to take care of people.’ If I can do that for the rest of my life, then mission accomplished.”

About the Drexel Co-op program: More than 98 percent of eligible undergraduate students at Drexel University participate in the co-op program, balancing full-time classes and up to three different internships during their time at Drexel. Students can choose from more than 1,700 employers in 33 states and 48 international locations — plus endless possibilities through self-arranged placements.