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Calvin College hosts medical mission symposium

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Featuring local and internationally-renowned physicians, the symposium provides physicians and students with stories, tips and resources for practicing medicine internationally.

Providing opportunities to combine service and academics is one of Larry Gerbens’ greatest passions as a pre-health adviser at Calvin College and liaison to the health community. This passion has been one of his main motivators in organizing the upcoming inaugural Medical Mission Symposium being held at Calvin’s Prince Conference Center on May 16.

While much of Gerbens’ day-to-day work involves providing such opportunities for students, this symposium will also give community healthcare providers the resources to combine the service and academic components on their own medical missions. “I hope health people of all ages and all places in their career have a great time here and learn a lot about what’s going on in medical missions,” he said. “This is an excellent way to bring both these components together.

“This just solidifies and cements our reputation as doing great work in the national and international community to have a symposium like this here,” Gerbens added.

Plans come together

How does a symposium like this come together? According to Gerbens, through many months of preparation led by the providential hand of God.

The plans began to form when David Stevens, MD and CEO of Christian Medical and Dental Associations was secured as the guest speaker for the May 13 William Spoelhof Society Dinner taking place at Van Noord Arena (see sidebar). Glenn Geelhoed, MD and founder of Mission to Heal was also going to be in town as a part of his partnership with Calvin, leading pre-med students on medical mission trips, and for the May 15 premier of the documentary, We are the Ones, based on Geelhoed’s work in Sudan during the Sudanese Civil War, which will take place at Celebration Cinema at Woodland Mall.

Geelhoed '64 and Stevens are influential leaders in the field of medical missions. “I thought, ‘we’ve got two dynamite keynote speakers in town. Why not take advantage and create something even bigger,” said Gerbens.

Equipping physicians to serve

From there came the idea to organize the symposium, which will feature Stevens and Geelhoed as keynote speakers and also several area medical practitioners, highlighting both their local work and their medical missions to other countries such as Nepal, El Salvador and Malawi. On display at the documentary premier and at the symposium will be the first Mobile Surgical Unit, a way to provide surgery in rural areas developed by Geelhoed, who dreams that eventually one will be located on every continent.

Calvin is co-sponsoring the symposium with the Kent County Medical Society (KCMS), Kent County Osteopathic Association, Mission to Heal and Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Through collaboration with KCMS, the symposium offers Continuing Medical Education (CME) credits. Practicing physicians are required to obtain 50 of these credits a year. “Physicians are always looking for opportunities to receive their CME credits,” explained Gerbens. “And local physicians wouldn’t want to pass up the chance to receive some here in town and at such a low cost.”

“Our members have been wanting an opportunity like this,” said Patricia Dalton, executive director of KCMS. “At the symposium they can learn the most up to date immunizations and vaccines. They are given tips and tools on how to develop a missionary team. Whether you are studying medicine, in the middle of your career or nearing retirement and looking for ways to continue sharing your talents, this is a way to stay up-to-date, get the resources on how to create these groups, and learn about what you should expect when serving internationally.”

Equipping students and professionals

However, Dalton emphasized that you don’t have to be a physician to attend, and that it will be an excellent event for all who are interested. “This is open to the community,” she said. “If you have any role in healthcare, are involved in church missions or are just curious about the topic of medical missions or the incredible and beautiful things our speakers have done, you are encouraged to participate.”

Gerbens is particularly excited about one specific group of attendees—the students. Twenty Michigan State medical students and 20 Calvin pre-health students are coming as full participants free of charge, thanks to several sponsors. “A big part for me is to introduce students at formative times of their lives to a life of service,” he said. “Now that might mean serving their patients in private practice their whole life in Grand Rapids or elsewhere in the U.S. It might mean doing short term types of medical missions. It might mean serving a lifetime in medical missions.

“To have students attend this symposium,” Gerbens continued, “and see people who are serving domestically and internationally and are happy doing it, have families and are experiencing real joy in their lives, that’s a powerful testimony to our students.”

Gerbens, a former ophthalmologist and himself a leader of many medical missions, acknowledged that when someone’s health suffers, that person is most vulnerable. “As Christians we are called to show grace because we have been given grace,” he emphasized. “Because of the grace that I’ve received to be trained as a medical professional, medical missions are a way I can tangibly extend that grace to others.” Through this symposium, he hopes to equip people to do just that.

To reserve tickets to the symposium on May 16, contact the Kent County Medical Society at 616-458-4157 or visit to fill out a registration form.

The documentary We are the Ones will premiere at Celebration Cinema Woodland Mall on Friday, May 15 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 (80% of that is a donation to Mission to Heal) and are available for purchase here.

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