These days, Canadian Mark Boyko splits his time between working at a hospital in Canada and teaching medicine abroad—currently in Peru—but his desire to travel started 11 years ago, when he went on his first trip to a developing country at 24.
"I went to Tanzania the summer after my first year of medical school," he says. "The impetus behind that was actually curiosity and a bit of rebellion. Right before that trip, I asked for a year off because I was a little burned out from school and needed some time to do some other things. That’s where it all started. [The other medical students and I] traveled to this rural village that had a hospital set up, and we went to a leprosy colony. You would think, you know, do those even exist anymore? And they do, sadly. The people were amazed that we were there, to just see someone who came from Canada with a stethoscope to interact with them. They thought that was amazing. It was all smiles, all week, there.
After that, Boyko, now 35, graduated from medical school at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, and went on to work and volunteer in several countries, including India, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Peru. His first few trips overseas were through programs established at his medical school. Today he does research or relies on word-of-mouth to find hospitals and nongovernmental organizations he wants to work with.
"It usually starts as one of two avenues: either an Internet search where I get a sense of what the NGO is about, contact them, have a bit of a phone interview to see if we're on the same page, and then set up the project, or it is hearsay of an NGO through other physicians in my hospital that may have worked with them in the past."
Boyko’s experiences overseas are diverse, from responding to the Philippines’ Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 to working in a rural hospital in Cambodia. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the cholera outbreak that followed, he spent a month treating patients around-the-clock in a small tent in rural Haiti. Though it was a Médecins Sans Frontières tent, MSF didn’t have enough staff to run it, only dropping off supplies for a local NGO to work with.
"We were probably getting anywhere from 50 to 100 patients showing up each day. People were coming from all over. Often, relatives would drag their dad or uncle or whoever on a thatch mat for days to reach the tent in hopes we could help. Sometimes they were already dead on arrival, and other times extremely dehydrated but we were able to turn them around. The need was so great each day, and though that can be tiring, there’s also an energy and drive you can get from that—knowing you got to get up each day and get right back down there. There’s something special about the urgency of a relief situation because everyone’s able to meet on that level of what’s really important."
Boyko also went on his own to a more remote area in the jungle where the need was even greater.
"There were a few nuns working 24-7 in a small clinic. They had no room to house everyone, so it just became a huge field of bodies on gurneys. I remember them building coffins right next to where the patients were laying; it was eerie to be listening to someone's heart with my stethoscope but also hear the nailing of coffins 40 yards over. Hard to tell what was a heart sound and what was a hammer."
Back in Canada, Boyko appreciates the simple things, living in a one-bedroom apartment in Calgary and shying away from fancy dinners or expensive trips. He has never even owned a car. He does enjoy a trip out to the Rocky Mountains when he has the chance.
"It’s amazing how we have such a luxurious life back home that we are afforded the time to worry about things that really aren’t issues. In relief spots, you’re reminded of what really matters each day. Your day gets stripped down to very basic things."
Basic—and incredibly difficult at times too.
"I’ve been very sick in some of these countries. I think I actually ended up getting cholera when I was in Haiti. I was on my own in the middle of the jungle, and it was bad—very, very bad. And it’s not until you’re that sick in a spot with little resources that you are so appreciative that you would have someone who could help you. I’ve always felt that if the roles were reversed, if Canada ever had a horrible earthquake or a horrible famine situation—my goodness, would you ever welcome help from other countries with open arms."
When he is working abroad, Boyko teaches doctors, residents, and nurses about general emergency care topics, including trauma care, resuscitation, basic CPR, and advanced life support.
"I do the theory on PowerPoint and then case scenarios with a dummy on a stretcher. Simple skills that through repetition anyone can become good at and can save a life now and again. Some places are keen to learn; others not so much. You never know until you arrive."
Over the years, Boyko’s motivations for working overseas have also changed.
"The rebellious phase has probably faded away. I don’t think anyone should lose their rebellion 100 percent, but mine’s diminished a bit. It’s truly my passion in life to help in this capacity, because I can and I think I should. I love teaching medicine; I love helping people out. It’s a true drive and love for that sort of work and an appreciation for how amazing these people are in more developing spots. They have such a great spirit and sense of community, even in harder situations."
Boyko will soon return to Peru to do more training, and he has no intention of stopping his work overseas anytime soon.
"It’s the goal to always have some international work be part of my life."