Robin N. Sobolewski ’93 is a radiologist who specializes in Women’s Imaging at Jefferson Radiology in Hartford, CT. She has taken her know-how, equipment, and even some of her colleagues, to her former Peace Corps home off the coast of Western Africa to provide much-needed and much-appreciated radiology services.
After attending the College of William and Mary, where she received a B.S., Sobolewski decided that “it was the one time in my life that I would be able to volunteer and live abroad for any length of time before starting medical school and a career in medicine. The Peace Corps looks at your skill set, and matches you with a country that has needs that meet your specific talents. I was assigned to the small island nation of Cape Verde. I lived and worked in the small fishing village of Mosteiros, teaching English as a second language at the local high school. During this time I learned how kind and generous these people, with no natural resources or significant wealth, are.”
After the Peace Corps, Sobolewski entered the University of Connecticut to pursue her medical degree. “I love science and anatomy, and I wanted to help people. Also, I am an avid photographer, so when radiology was introduced in medical school, I fell in love with the idea of aiding others through imaging and technology.” In her final year of medical school, she had the opportunity to return to Cape Verde to do a rotation in International Medicine. According to Sobolewski, “Between 1999 and my return in 2008, not much had changed. I was shocked by how meager the Cape Verdean medical resources were. There was a huge need for imaging. At the time, the only radiology services that the island had access to was a single x-ray machine on the other side of the island (in São Filipe), an hour from Mosteiros, and a physician from another island who would fly to São Filipe with an ultrasound machine once a month.” During that visit, ground was broken to build a new hospital, bringing hope for improved access to health care.
Medical diploma in hand, Sobolewski interned at Greenwich Hospital before working as a radiology resident at Hartford Hospital. In 2012, during her third year of radiology residency, she applied for, and received, a travel grant from the American College of Radiology (ACR) to work for one month in an underdeveloped country. She decided to return to Cape Verde, this time to work in the local hospital. “I was inspired to bring ultrasound to Mosteiros by the tragic story of my friend, Natinzinha, who, during my Peace Corps tour, went into labor at home, as do many Cape Verdean women. She did not have much prenatal care, and when the baby came, it was in a breech position. The head became stuck in the birth canal. By the time her husband found help and they got Natinzinha to the hospital, the baby died. This tragic episode reiterated for me the need for an ultrasound machine that could prevent unnecessary deaths.”
In Hartford, Sobolewski’s colleagues learned of her past work in Cape Verde and her intention to bring ultrasound technology to the island. Not only did they help fundraise, but also they signed on to travel there to contribute their medical skills. “Our team performed more than 125 ultrasound exams with our donated portable ultrasound machine and 30 radiographs. With only one doctor and five nurses taking care of the 10,000 inhabitants of Mosteiros, there was not a lot of downtime for teaching diagnostic imaging. But both the nursing staff and Dr. Ledo learned the basics of ultrasound imaging rapidly, giving them the skills to do basic triage scanning. Also, having the machine in the hospital would facilitate exams when the visiting gynecologist, surgeon, and radiologist conduct their bi-monthly and monthly clinics. The last day of scanning brought my whole trip full-circle when I was able to perform an obstetric ultrasound on my friend, Natinzinha.”
Upon her return to the states, and as part of the American College of Radiology grant, Sobolewski was invited to speak at the annual RAD-AID international conference. There she met the president of the organization, and their work aligned. “I was invited to join the RAD-AID team, and I am now the project manager for Cape Verde. This relationship allows me to learn from RAD-AID’s vast project experience in various countries around the globe, utilize resources, and work with industry leaders to bring radiology services to those who need it most.”
In July 2014, Sobolewski joined Jefferson Radiology, working in the Women’s Imaging division. Early in 2015, Sobolewski and her team traveled back to Cape Verde. “We scanned many patients (obstetric, abdominal, musculoskeletal, pelvic, breast), performing more than 170 ultrasound exams in two weeks and aiding in the diagnoses of polyhydramnios, polycystic ovarian syndrome, omphalocele, Baker’s cyst, and ectopic pregnancy. Our group met with the local internist, as well as a regional surgeon, radiologist, and gynecologist, to discuss current health issues in Fogo and make plans for future projects. Additionally, the team visited remote health posts and local schools to extend outreach and donate medical and school supplies.”
Clearly, Sobolewski and her colleagues have made a huge difference for the people in Cape Verde, but many needs remain. “The women do not have access to mammograms, so that is one thing we are working toward. In the next year or so, I am hoping to grow our team with the goal of bringing additional equipment and more imaging services to the island.” Why does she do it? “This third-world country is incredibly grateful for the help. With a short amount of time, and through the generosity of many, so much can be accomplished!”
Sobolewski is grateful for the footing she received from Hotchkiss. “I needed to be challenged, and I was. I had great friendships and inspiring educators. We were exposed to everything. There is such opportunity at Hotchkiss to travel far beyond the typically prescribed curriculum and explore one’s real interests. I would recommend my career path to a current student. It is a long road, but it is very rewarding if you have a love of science and helping people.”