The popular Travel Medicine Service clinic at the University of Washington Medical Center will close May 17 to make way for an expansion of the hospital's emergency department.
The walls of Dr. Russell McMullen’s office at the University of Washington Medical Center are covered in postcards showing galloping zebras, stalking leopards and towering peaks such as Aconcagua in Argentina.
And then there’s the box of bottles — filled with preserved intestinal worms and the particularly nasty botfly maggots, which can flourish underneath human skin.
These are patient mementos McMullen has collected over 25 years working at the hospital’s popular Travel Medicine Service clinic, which opened in the early 1980s. McMullen and his co-workers are coming to terms with news the clinic will close May 17 to make way for an expansion of the hospital’s emergency department.
The clinic logs between 4,000 and 5,000 patient visits each year. People traveling to developing countries get vaccinations and counseling on how to stay healthy in places where they might be exposed to malaria, dengue fever and a host of other diseases. McMullen also treats travelers who return home with exotic illnesses, some of which get misdiagnosed by other doctors.
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The patients he sees come from a variety of backgrounds, including those who work in Seattle’s thriving global-health field, volunteers hoping to make a difference in poorer countries, technology-company representatives setting up outsourcing operations, even cruise-ship travelers.
McMullen said most visits are covered by patients’ health insurance and the clinic always has broken even financially or made a small surplus.
“I think that the clinic had a really special place here in the university system and in the Seattle community,” said Sandy Murray, a registered nurse who has worked there for about 10 years. “I’ve always thought of it as the place to get pre-travel care.”
Tina Mankowski, a spokeswoman for UW Medicine, said the hospital needs the clinic’s space and that patients will find it more convenient to get their travel needs met at one of six UW community clinics located throughout King County.
In a draft of a letter to be sent to patients next week, the UW writes, “We want to assure you that travel-medicine specialists will continue to be available to you within the UW Medicine health system.”
UW Medicine has promised the clinic’s staff will be offered other work within the UW system.
Attending the clinic last Friday was James Piper, 17, a junior at Juanita High School who plans to travel to Ethiopia with a church group this summer. He’ll be working with children who are suffering from HIV/AIDS or whose family members have the disease.
Piper got three shots Friday — one for Hepatitis A, one for typhoid and one for yellow fever. McMullen told Piper the importance of following the instructions for his malaria medicine by taking it only on a full stomach. McMullen told the story of one doctor who’d gone to Ghana to do volunteer work and who’d suffered gastrointestinal bleeding because he didn’t read the instructions.
“He ended up a patient at his own hospital,” McMullen said. Piper promised he’d follow the instructions.
Despite dealing with all sorts of odd cases, McMullen said he’s only gotten sick once while traveling himself — it was diarrhea, and it happened, ironically enough, while he was attending a conference on travel diseases.
“It was after eating an expensive snail dinner,” McMullen said. “In Paris.”
Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or firstname.lastname@example.org