From Kansas to Kenya: Hospitalist volunteers to care for patients around the globe

Matthew H. Harms, FACP, travels the globe for medical work.


Matthew H. Harms, FACP

Occupation: Hospitalist, Lawrence Memorial Hospital, Lawrence, Kan.

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Age: 41.

Current residence: Lawrence, Kan.

Hometown: Newton, Kan.

Family: Divorced, with a 5-year-old daughter.

Medical school: Kansas University School of Medicine.

Residency: Kansas University Medical Center.

I became a hospitalist because: While working at the VA Medical Center in Topeka, doing inpatient and outpatient primary care, as more and more veterans came in, it became apparent we needed a more efficient way of doing things. I helped set up a hospitalist system.

Something I wish I'd learned in medical school: How to optimize patient billing. The terminology we were taught differs from the terminology Medicare uses for diagnoses—semantics that apparently make a huge difference in reimbursement.

First job: A paperboy, starting the summer after second grade. Since then, with the exception of when I was in medical school, I don't think more than one week has passed that I haven't been employed.

Hardest medical lesson learned: Bad situations happen. You shouldn't take them personally. You need to leave your work, not take it home.

Most meaningful professional accomplishment: Sharing the knowledge I've learned. When people ask for advice, in the hospital or outside, they often apologize. I tell them, “No, you don't understand. I'm fine with that. It's what I do.”

On being recognized as a 2008 Hero in Healthcare by Ingram's Magazine for medical volunteer work: I feel I don't deserve it. It seems too lofty a title for me. I accepted it on behalf of my coworkers and all the people I've volunteered with. I tried to represent them well by accepting that award.

How I began volunteering: In college, I went to Brazil for six months as a volunteer for the Mennonite church, to help construct buildings. In medical school, I went to Haiti with my parents—who met doing voluntary service there—to work with a volunteer team refurbishing the Albert Schweitzer Hospital.

Recent volunteer activities: In August 2007, I went to Honduras as part of a team setting up a clinic in the capital city of Tegucigalpa. In June 2008, I spent two-and-a-half weeks seeing patients in Kenya. Our hospitalist group volunteers at Health Care Access, a clinic in Lawrence for people without insurance. I have also volunteered at the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen.

What I've learned from volunteering: Some people have so little they are appreciative of anything you do for them, and of the things they do have. It makes me appreciate the things I have and (I am) less likely to desire things I don't need. It's enjoyable and interesting to see how a group of Americans can go to a country, join with the people, and work as a team across cultural boundaries to accomplish goals.

Advice for hospitalists interested in volunteering: Opportunities for volunteering, even short-term, exist. When you go to other countries, you'll see whoever comes in. Although I was trained for adult medicine, I saw many sick kids, too. Even without formal pediatric training, I was a lot more help than no physician at all. You see many of the same things over and over… and, suddenly, you become an expert.

Personal heroes: My parents have been heroes to me for their volunteering. Also humanitarians like Gandhi, and Dr. Larry and Gwen Mellon, who set up the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti.

Favorite ways to spend free time: Being with my daughter, bicycling, playing bass guitar in the praise band at the church I attend, and scuba diving.

Favorite author or poet: Kurt Vonnegut.

Pet peeves: When people call a bloody stool melanotic, which refers to the pigment melanin, instead of melenic, which refers to blood. I was once corrected by a gastroenterologist for making this mistake myself.

Most surprising thing about me: I'm a ballroom dancer.

If I weren't a physician, I'd be: A photographer for National Geographic.

Future goals: To live in Lawrence and work as a hospitalist, and volunteer when an opportunity comes up. Eventually, I'd consider doing medical mission work outside the country, preferably in the tropics and close to the ocean.