Meet Nick Ellis, DMS '10

In January 2008, Dartmouth College honored MEDLIFE, the organization founded by Nick Ellis, with a Martin Luther King Social Justice Award. Accepting the award were (left to right) Jessica Montes DC'10, Sam Dow DC'10, Nick Ellis DMS'10, Matt Davis DC'08, and Stephanie Kim DC'08.

Majoring in international development at McGill University, Nick Ellis spent several semesters in Panama and Ecuador. “It was in my fourth year, when I was living in Ecuador, that I decided I wanted to do medicine,” he says. “The thing that really struck me was the lack of access to medical care for poor people, and what that meant. I remember day after day walking to the bus station to go off to my internship, and I’d see this guy sitting on the curb who had visible wounds, and him never getting better. I started to realize that the resources of the big international NGO’s weren’t always getting to the neediest people.”

Ellis’s experiences in South America also convinced him that he didn’t need to wait until he had an M.D. to start making a difference. Returning home to take his pre-med requirements at the University of Maine, this Bangor native launched the non-profit MEDLIFE – Medicine, Education and Development for Low Income Families Everywhere. This small student-run organization with big goals sponsors medical missions to Ecuador to provide care for poor, underserved communities, and in some cases to arrange for lifesaving interventions such as heart surgery or cancer treatment. MEDLIFE’s student volunteers organize all the logistics of these missions, from fundraising to acquiring necessary supplies, to arranging in-country transportation.

Segundo, shown here with Ellis, received life-saving heart surgery in 2007, thanks to the efforts of MEDLIFE, which arranged for him to travel 5 hours to Quito, Ecuador for the surgery.

When Ellis arrived at DMS in the fall of 2006, he brought MEDLIFE with him, establishing a second chapter at Dartmouth. Now he reports that roughly 100 Dartmouth undergrads are involved. “They’ve been really phenomenal,” he says. “Right now they’re organizing a surgical mission for June, a primary care mission for June, and in July we’re going to send our first primary care mission to Honduras. Those three missions are all coming out of Dartmouth.”

Meanwhile, MEDLIFE chapters have also formed at the University of Vermont and University of New England. “We’re trying to expand to other schools and we’ve had a phenomenal response, because I think the students see that through MEDLIFE they can be more than advocates. It can be the arm of action for their sense of ethics or morality around social justice issues,” says Ellis.

Ellis chose to come to Dartmouth in part because he felt it would be a supportive environment for MEDLIFE and for his interest in international health. “Joe O’Donnell really encouraged me that my work with MEDLIFE would fit in well at Dartmouth,” says Ellis, who continues to manage the rapidly growing organization on a volunteer basis. “All of spare my time in med school is spent with MEDLIFE. If I’m not studying, I’m doing something for MEDLIFE.”

As one of DMS’ first Urban Health Scholars, Ellis and a colleague have organized an educational program for low income and minority high school students in Manchester, NH to encourage their interests in health care professions.

Reflecting on his professional goals, Ellis explains, “What I really am working at is becoming a bilingual physician, in all the true senses of being bilingual. I’m bilingual in Spanish conversationally, but I want to get the same kind of professional fluency and understanding of how to talk to patients in Spanish that we get in the On Doctoring course.”

As he continues his medical training, Ellis hopes to find a residency in internal medicine that allows him to spend time practicing in developing countries. “I think it’s crucial to get experience working internationally throughout your medical education and not train solely in a first world setting,” he explains. Ultimately, he hopes to not only keep extending the impact of MEDLIFE, but also to advance the training of more physicians to work in international health care. “As we look towards getting more people in international health care, we have to have the training programs here to feed that system,” he says. "I'm committed to social justice for the poor, and I plan to continue on this path as a professional."

Learn more about MEDLIFE at http://www.medlifeweb.org/.

Read an update on Nick Ellis and MEDLIFE in the fall 2010 issue of Dartmouth Medicine.

Contact Nick Ellis.