Alumni Spotlight | Julie Mayers Benson, M.D., and Christine Albrecht, M.D.

By Suzy Frisch

Family medicine ambassadors

Colleagues team up to host Ugandan exchange students

Medical School alumnae Julie Mayers Benson, M.D., and Christine Albrecht, M.D., have a lot in common, starting with their commitment to providing comprehensive care to their rural patients, from birth to end of life. 

 Ugandan medical students Titus Tumusiime and  Jonathan Nkalubo

(Photo: courtesy of Julie Mayers Benson, M.D.)

The duo, who work at Lakewood Health System in Staples, Minnesota, pursued similar paths to rural family medicine. Albrecht (’03) and Benson (’94) got their start at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth Campus, where they flourished in small, close-knit classes. As participants in the Rural Physician Associate Program, they lived with and shadowed primary care physicians intermittently during medical school, with Benson in Staples and Albrecht in Mora, Minnesota. 

Last summer, they shared a new experience when they teamed up to host two medical exchange students from Makerere University in Uganda. Fifth-year medical students Jonathan Nkalubo and Titus Tumusiime spent nearly a month in central Minnesota immersing themselves in family medicine — a specialty not available in their country —  with Albrecht and Benson as their guides.

“It was an awesome opportunity to show how unique our specialty is and promote it around the world as the best way to care for the majority of patients,” Albrecht says. “You get to know the entire family and the interworking of those relationships that you don’t get in any other specialty. You know the social determinants of health in that family, and you can help work on those things.”

Albrecht already had close connections to East Africa, having spent time in Kenya as an undergraduate exchange student, medical student, and resident. When she started working at Lakewood, she convinced its leaders to start a sister hospital program in Tabaka, Kenya. Since 2012, she has traveled there many times for weeks-long rotations with other physicians, including Benson last year. Welcoming Nkalubo and Tumusiime was a natural extension of those activities, Albrecht says. 

Immersed in rural life and medicine

During their time in Minnesota, Tumusiime and Nkalubo lived, worked, and recreated with the physicians and their families, soaking up rural life. 

I hope to become a better physician who values quality patient care and the involvement of patients in their care. I hope to become an advocate for better health for all people in my country.

– Jonathan Nkalubo, medical exchange student

“I had an awesome experience,” Nkalubo says. “I enjoyed every bit of the program, ranging from studying to social life.” The students engaged in numerous rural Minnesota experiences, including visiting small-town festivals, going on boat rides, swimming, shopping, and learning how to golf. 

Benson, who was named Family Physician of the Year by the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians in 2017, says she sought to show the pair how she builds and maintains relationships with patients, collaborates with them on their care, and approaches difficult decisions. 

“I really like slow medicine, where you take the time to talk and listen, help educate, and coach,” says Benson, who serves as medical director of Lakewood’s hospice and palliative care program. “I’m advocating for doing more serious conversations about end of life and being blunt and open to wherever people are at.”

For her part, Albrecht focused on American medical education, explaining, for example, senior physicians’ role as teachers who treat students with respect. “When Jonathan left, he told us, ‘I’m going to go home and show them how they need to teach,’” Albrecht says. 

New, broader perspectives

Photo of two people cleaning cucumbers

(Photo: courtesy of Julie Mayers Benson, M.D.)

Now back in Uganda, Nkalubo says what he learned in Staples will help shape the way he practices medicine. “I hope to become a better physician who values quality patient care and the involvement of patients in their care. I hope to become an advocate for better health for all people in my country.” His current plans include completing a family medicine residency and then specializing in obstetrics and gynecology.

Tumusiime, who dreams of opening the first hospital in his hometown of Kamwenge, found the exchange to be life altering as well. “It was an amazing experience that has completely changed my life and thinking process,” he says. “I learned to conduct a good consultation and have time with patients to let them understand their condition and manage their disease.” 

Getting to know people from another part of the world and seeing their own work and country through others’ eyes was equally valuable for the hosts, agree Benson and Albrecht. 

“It’s a pretty amazing opportunity to spend time with people from a very different culture. But we figured out in the end that we have more similarities than differences,” Benson says. “You actually get to have a greater appreciation for what you do have and feel a little lucky.” 

Published on May 12, 2020

Lead photo: Ugandan medical students Titus Tumusiime (far left) and Jonathan Nkalubo (far right) learned about family medicine and rural life from central Minnesota family physicians Julie Mayers Benson, M.D., and Christine Albrecht, M.D. (Photo: courtesy of Julie Mayers Benson, M.D.)

Web extra

Four people taking a selfie style photo

(From left) Jonathan Nkalubo, Jennifer Thomalla, Claire Baumgartner, and Titus Tumusiime

Into Africa

Med School, Duluth Campus students expand their lessons in Uganda

While Ugandan medical students Jonathan Nkalubo and Titus Tumusiime visited rural Minnesota last summer, two University of Minnesota Medical School students made it a full-circle exchange by spending nearly a month in Uganda. 

Claire Baumgartner and Jennifer Thomalla, second-year students on the Medical School’s Duluth Campus, came home with new perspectives on the deep commitment Ugandan physicians must make to provide quality medical care with limited resources.

“Meeting people who have passions similar to yours, who are working their hardest to help their patients and their community—it was great to see that,” Baumgartner says. “It opens up the way you think, and it makes you feel more connected with other people. You become more of a world citizen.”

As part of an exchange sponsored by the Medical School’s Duluth Global Health Research Institute, the Minnesota students first spent time in Kampala with Nkalubo and Tumusiime before the Ugandan students came to the United States. Thomalla and Baumgartner were introduced to the country’s culture, sites, and medical education. Then they went to Tororo in Eastern Uganda, where they shadowed a physician and nurses as they cared for patients in the hospital and community.

Both from rural Minnesota, Thomalla and Baumgartner say they found it fascinating to see how doctors provide a broad swath of care in rural Uganda, not unlike family medicine physicians in the United States. The physician they shadowed was essentially a hospitalist, but he often made diagnoses without the benefit of expensive tests.

Thomalla says what she learned will shape her own training and practice.

“The more diversity and experience you can get dealing with people who are completely different than you are, in different social and economic situations, the better you can be at treating your patients,” she says.