Dr. Jane Cross, Holyoke Pediatrics

“For my entire life, I’ve felt a commitment to working with all people—not just domestically. Part of our oath is that all people need healthcare…” Dr. Jane Cross

Dr. Jane Cross in Peru in 2002.

Dr. Jane Cross in Peru in 2002.

Dr. Jane Cross has been a pediatrician with PPOC practice Holyoke Pediatric Associates since 1998. In her 30 years as a pediatrician, she has always had a passion for international health work. In 2002, she volunteered to go to Peru with another doctor; since then, she has taken one trip a year to volunteer for a couple weeks in a location of great need—to Ecuador multiple times, to India and now Greece.

On a September 2016 vacation to Greece, she was struck by news of a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos that is accepting hundreds of people every day who are escaping war, persecution and trauma from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. To better understand, she watched a 20-minute documentary from the New York Times called “4.1 miles.” A member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section of International Child Health, Dr. Cross investigated this list serve to find out that doctors could volunteer to provide healthcare to the refugees on this island.

“I volunteered with a group from the Netherlands called Boat Refugee Foundation for two and a half weeks this past fall in a refugee camp on Lesbos named Moria,” said Dr. Cross. “Working with six to eight other medical providers, we covered the 4-11 PM shift and then throughout the night. We treated sick children and went to emergencies in the camp, of which we had two or three per shift.”

Dr. Cross most commonly dealt with very severe PTSD flashbacks. She also helped women who went into labor, treated seizures, and saw people who came into the clinic. “It was heart-wrenching work,” said Dr. Cross. “The refugee camp in Lesbos was meant to hold 2,500 people, but there were 5,000 people during the time I volunteered. They are coming in at 100 people a day now…people are really on the run; they have nothing left in their countries.”

Dr. Cross described a camp with tents and containers in which people could live, but the over flow of people combined with the lack of space and the snow and winter cold in Lesbos had caused some of the refugee population to perish. With subpar sanitation, minimal capacity for heating and cooling, and limited allotment of food and money, the conditions in the refugee camp are becoming even direr as time goes on.

Dr. Cross volunteered in India.

Dr. Cross volunteered in India.

“I spoke to one man around midnight one time. A lawyer from Damascus, he said he’d lost his wife and children in a bombing, had been living in a tent for a month, and was just trying to reach his brother in Germany,” said Dr. Cross. “It’s unbelievable what people are living through.” Other organizations doing work in this region are Doctors Without Borders and the Syrian American Medical Society. Crushed by the situations she continued to encounter and the stories she heard from her refugee patients, she knew her work was extremely necessary.

After Dr. Cross’ initial visit to Peru in 2002, she and four other doctors started Residents Educated in Alternative Cultures and Health (REACH) at Baystate, putting on one evening program a month addressing a range of issues related to global medicine. REACH offers travel grants to residents who wish to volunteer overseas. The program, now operated by Baystate, focuses on residents and medical students who are interested in global medicine.

Though Dr. Cross found her most recent volunteer opportunity to Greece through the AAP International Child Health listserve, she found some of her other opportunities by word of mouth. She recommends that those interested in providing international health work go to the same place multiple times to learn about the culture and how to be the most helpful.

“I’ve gone to Ecuador seven times now. The hospital is funded by an Italian missionary group but you don’t have to be religious to volunteer. As long as you speak Spanish, your healthcare services are welcome,” said Dr. Cross. A native English speaker, Dr. Cross took Spanish in medical school and then during her time at Holyoke Health Center where she served the large Puerto Rican population there.

“After a few years of being at HHC, I picked up a fair amount of Spanish. I decided to take some night classes in Northampton before I traveled to Peru and Ecuador. I would say I’m 90% competent now, but I do have to call in a translator for delicate situations or for patients who have speech issues where I really can’t understand them,” said Dr. Cross.

Dr. Cross absolutely recommends international service for residents and medical students interested in providing healthcare to underserved populations around the globe. Citing a Pediatrics article on preparing oneself for international service, she says that at a minimum, a person should make sure the place they are going actually wants their services, and that they are  fulfilling the needs that the community itself has identified. “When I go to Ecuador, I ask them what supplies they need, and I do a scavenger hunt to get things donated from a variety of sources. I ask what topics they want me to speak about, and I prepare a PowerPoint in Spanish. When I get there, they assign me to work that they need done. If they need me in a clinic all day, then I do that. For me, it’s very fulfilling,” said Dr. Cross.

Dr. Cross talks with a family in Ecuador.

Dr. Cross talks with a family in Ecuador.

When she is not volunteering internationally, she is actively involved in non-profit work in her community.  She has spent the past 20 years serving on the Board of the CARE Center—a GED program for pregnant and parenting teenage girls in Holyoke. She has also served the past four years on the Board of Tapestry Health—an organization in western Massachusetts focused on family planning, needle exchange, risk reduction, and women’s health issues. At the moment, Dr. Cross is helping a Rwandan refugee family in Northampton. The town agreed to welcome refugees, so Dr. Cross and many others are helping out in every way imaginable to help them settle in (transportation, child care, learning about our culture and more). “This family was in a refugee camp in Rwanda for 20 years,” said Dr. Cross. “Only about 1% of refugees ever make it to the U.S., but this family has been here since April and they are now learning English and settling in. It’s an amazing amount of work and we are happy to do it.”

At the encouragement of Dr. Cross and other pediatricians involved in international health work, medical residents can participate in international health tracks. There is already much involvement at Baystate, UMASS and Boston Children’s Hospital, but Dr. Cross is very willing to share her experience with those wishing to learn more, and to assist those who are interested in this line of care.

“My motivation is the realization that every day we have such incredible privilege, and I’m so lucky…I realize this through my work in Holyoke but even more so overseas. I don’t do it nearly enough; there’s a huge need, and our work needs to be spread out even more across these most underserved areas.”

If you would like to know more about Dr. Cross’ volunteering abroad, or learn how you can become an international health worker, call Dr. Cross at 413-552-6380 or email her: jane.r.cross@gmail.com