Taking a Year (of a Lifetime) Off

The following is a guest post by UNMC third-year medical student Eric Nagengast.

Eric Nagengast-small

For the past eight months, one of the hardest questions for me to answer has been, “Where do you live?”

In this time, I’ve spent two months in Rwanda, three months in Boston, one month in India and the rest of the time between Nebraska, Colombia and a few other countries.

Since I’m a medical student, people wonder how I’m able to spend so much time away from school. I’m able to travel because I took a leave of absence from medical school between my third and fourth years.

Yes, it may seem crazy, but I actually agreed to put an extra year between myself and the elusive M.D. because I am spending this year as a Paul Farmer Global Surgery Research Associate with the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change (PGSSC) at Harvard Medical School.

At PGSSC, we believe safe surgery is a right that all humans should have. Through research, advocacy and clinical assistance, PGSSC strives to bring safe surgery to the people of low- and middle-income countries.

Historically, surgical care has largely been left out of global health priorities. So our battle is not an easy one.  Our group is composed of physicians from the affiliated Harvard hospitals, fellows, residents, students and support staff from multiple schools, countries and continents.

 I am writing this post 30,000 feet above the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, four hours into a 14-hour flight from Newark to Delhi, the major leg of what is bound to be around a 30-hour trip to Guwahati, India.

In the last six months, I have grown accustomed to spending large chunks of time in airports and airplanes. One can actually get a lot done crammed between a couple of strangers for hours with no contact with the outside world (that is, of course, once one has seen every movie the in-flight entertainment has to offer).

Along with traveling, I also have grown accustomed to leaving the luxuries of the western world behind (such as hot water and easy access to food), and I am actually looking forward to my next few months abroad.


Nagengast with children at a refugee camp in Rwanda for those from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In India, my team and I are working on a number of research projects in joint partnership with Operation Smile, an international cleft-care organization. Through these projects, we hope to give a voice to the voiceless. We hope to show the great need there is for surgical care throughout the world, and we hope to show this need can be treated in a cost-effective and safe manner.

While I am in Guwahati, I will be lucky enough to scrub in to cleft surgery with some of the world’s greatest cleft surgeons. For a medical student with the goal of becoming a plastic surgeon, this experience is a dream come true.


Nagengast (left) assists Dr. Bill Magee on a cleft palate surgery at the Operation Smile Guwahati Comprehensive Cleft Care Center in India. Dr. Magee is Operation Smile chief executive and co-founder.

could not share my story without thanking those who have supported me and helped make my experience possible. In particular, I would like to thank my family and everyone behind the Nellie House Craven Scholarship.

This year is undoubtedly the best year of my life. I have met the most amazing people, I have seen the most amazing things, and I now have a vision of what I would like to do with my future. Most importantly, I am the happiest I have ever been.

I will return to UNMC a better clinician, a better researcher and a better person. I hope my story inspires more UNMC students to consider taking less traditional paths toward their degrees.  


Stay tuned for my next post on a day in my life in Guwahati, India.


  1. Krupa Savalia says:

    This is such an incredible story of your journey thus far, Eric. Your path to developing into the best physician and surgeon you can possibly be is very inspiring. I am so excited to hear more once you return, safe travels around the world and back home!

  2. debra reilly md says:

    so glad for you to have had this time to grow! it is truly a transforming experience to learn that people all over the world appreciate love and kindness – and so much of the world needs more of both.

  3. Robert Weir says:

    Very impressive story, Eric. You are also a gifted writer. I’m excited to match with you next year. Best of luck!

  4. Dwaine Peetz Jr MD says:

    Great Blog from altitude!
    Sounds like you’re on a great adventure. A wonderful way to prepare for your future Surgical career.
    If you get back to the Brigham in Boston, stop in to visit with my classmate Chuck Vacanti MD. He’s the Chairman of Anesthesia. Had breakfast the other day with him in Naples. He’d love to meet you. He’s done some very impressive work in Tissue Engineering. Chris lived with and worked with him for a month.
    Keep up the good work. Look forward to your next Blog.

  5. Lisa Gray says:

    You will be such an inspiration to so many!! We will be staying tuned for more goodness to come!

  6. Sahibinden İlan Ver says:

    Nice story Nicole. Thanks.

  7. Dr. Carol Drake says:

    would you be willing to speak to a group of Creighton medical students about your experiences?

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