Ascension Via Christi International Family Medicine fellow sets sights on serving his country of origin

Shortly before his 5th birthday, Joseph Sumhlei and his family immigrated from Burma to the United States.

Having recently completed the International Family Medicine Fellowship Program at Ascension Via Christi, the now 30-year-old Dr. Sumhlei is hoping to someday use his skills to care for people living in Burma, which is now known as Myanmar.

“After going back to Burma in 2007, it was a realization that I’ve been very blessed by God because many people like me born there are often poor and don’t have opportunities or education,” he says. “I’ve been blessed to grow up in America, with a great education. Knowing how different life could have been is what motivates me to want to return and help.”

That desire grew even stronger when he returned to the country for the first time in 2007.

“I was in high school and it was a very eye-opening experience for me to see what a third-world country was like during the formative years of my life,” he says. “Seeing the poverty and the need, I grew not just in age and skills, but also in my faith because it was in my heart to serve in any way I could.”

He returned again in 2015 while in medical school.

“It further affirmed that I could see myself doing it so I needed to find somewhere I could learn and grow in my profession while gaining international experience,” he says.

Dr. Sumhlei completed the Ascension Via Christi Family Medicine Residency Program following his undergraduate and medical school graduation from the University of Iowa, just an hour away from where he grew up in the United States.

During his fourth year of medical school, he felt called to Wichita for his residency because of Ascension Via Christi’s International Family Medicine Fellowship Program.

“I wanted to find a way to return what I had been blessed with to those who need it,” he says.

As part of his recently completed fellowship training, Dr. Sumhlei served alongside friend and program fellow Cody Rogers, MD, for six months at Memorial Christian Hospital in Bangladesh, which is not far from the border of Myanmar.

“I was able to see a lot of similarities with my family, myself and the people of Burma,” he says, thankful Dr. Rogers was part of his journey. “That in itself was somewhat personal for me because I wanted to give back to that community since it felt so close to home.”

Before he left, Dr. Sumhlei received both doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine when it became available to Ascension Via Christi associates in December 2020, allowing him to become fully vaccinated just a week before his departure overseas.

“Once Dr. Rogers and I arrived, one of the long-term doctors said to us, ‘You two might be one of the only people in this hospital, and possibly country, vaccinated right now,’” says Dr. Sumhlei, who was then the first line to care for patients suspected to be infected by COVID-19. “We got the vaccine just in the nick of time.”

Dr. Sumhlei saw many refugees from Myanmar while serving.

“I had so much appreciation for their culture, how they value their relationships and how hospitable they were towards me,” he says. “The people who helped me made me want to be more invested and give back.”

Dr. Sumhlei, who worked shifts in Western Kansas during his fellowship training, noted that although a world apart, the lack of access to care in rural Kansas and Bangladesh were sadly similar.

“The facilities didn’t always have the resources necessary for some situations,” says Dr. Sumhlei, noting that patients were transferred hours away to more advanced facilities in both locations. “I also noticed that patients preferred to be close to home rather than far away, so that sometimes meant sacrificing the care they needed.”

His experiences here and overseas has given him a tremendous appreciation for his parents and their sacrifice, which he hopes to repay through his service to others.

“Seeing all the sacrifices my parents made for us to have a better life was something I didn’t have to often be reminded of,” says Dr. Sumhlei, who says his mom didn’t speak English when they immigrated. “Going from being at a relatively high-class status where we were in Burma at the time, and coming to America and becoming lower/middle-class and being a foreigner, was absolutely a perspective change and I’m forever grateful for that.”

Dr. Sumhlei is thankful for the opportunity provided by the International Family Medicine Fellowship Program, which he says was a very special part of his training and development, as well as for Todd Stephens, MD, and Patrick Allen, MD, who lead the program.

“They have much experience and wisdom to share when it comes to overseas and international missions and that just helped me glean a lot of wisdom from them.”