Norwegian medical students at WRHS

Mathias Thorvaldsen and May-Helen Håpnes left their native Norway in January to come to North Dakota for six weeks as part of a national exchange program.Posted Feb. 21, 2014

Mathias Thorvaldsen and May-Helen Håpnes are in their last week of an international medical exchange student program. In April, two students from UND will travel to Norway, and spend six weeks there. JAMIE SPAINHOWER/ADAMS COUNTY RECORD
Mathias Thorvaldsen and May-Helen Håpnes are in their last week of an international medical exchange student program. In April, two students from UND will travel to Norway, and spend six weeks there. JAMIE SPAINHOWER/ADAMS COUNTY RECORD

By JAMIE SPAINHOWER

ACR Editor

Mathias Thorvaldsen and May-Helen Håpnes left their native Norway in January to come to North Dakota for six weeks as part of a national exchange program. In April, two students from UND will travel to Norway.

Both are fifth year medical students at the University of Tromsø.

“We are located above the Artic Circle,” said Håpnes. “We have lots of cold and snow, but this has been very cold.” Their location is so far north there are two months of no sun, and two months of “midnight sun” when it never sets.

One of the first things Thorvaldsen learned when he came here was about SAD, Seasonal Associative Disorder. The lack of natural sunlight affects some people, and they become very depressed due to it.

The chance to come to the United States was something both of them were glad to be able to do.

Håpnes has traveled and done clinical work in several places. In Mexico, where she worked at an orphanage; in Brazil, Tanzania and she also partook of an exchange program with the University of Pretoria in South Africa, working in pediatrics and OBGYN.

Thorvaldsen said getting out of the classroom and into the practical part of his education has been very inspiring to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

“It is very stimulating intellectually in class, but it has really opened my eyes having practical training, said Thorvaldsen. “Usually there is not clinical training until the fifth year.” He feels he has a new perspective on his chosen career, and will take that with him when he returns home in many positive ways.

Medical school in Norway is 6 years, then an 18-month long internship – six months of surgery, six months of internal medicine and six months of general practice.

“This is the same for everyone,” said Håpnes. “After the internship is when we choose our specialty.”

Their current training is what used to be called General Practice, and would now be considered family medicine, when one doctor does it all for the whole family. Norway has socialized medicine, where almost everything is government funded.

Though both are as yet undecided on what their choices will be for their specialization,

Håpnes is leaning toward being a pediatrician, which would mean she have to work out of a hospital. She has delivered 10 babies on her own, when she was in other countries, and assisted with several others, including two here in Hettinger.

“I really enjoy the babies,” she said.

Thorvaldsen thinks he would like to go into private practice.

“It would bring a broader variety of patients than only seeing a certain type in the hospital,” he said. “It also gives the opportunity to be a little more your own boss.” Private practice would be a primary care, or general practice physician.

Håpnes comes from a rural area of Norway, about 3,000 people; Thorvaldsen’s hometown is a city of 70,000.

“I really like it here. It has given me a chance to see a very authentic part of America that most people in the rest of the world don’t have access to,” he said. “In America people think a little more freely and aren’t all expected to have the same opinions.”

Håpnes said the people are much more friendly and open than in her home country.

“Here people all say hello, we have been invited everywhere, even doctor’s homes,” she said. “In Norway that would not happen.”

Both have the same reason for going into medicine – the desire to help people.

“It takes a lot of compassion and empathy to understand problems from the patients’ point of view,” said Thorvaldsen. “It is stimulating to help people solve their puzzles and feel better.”

Though they only had six weeks to spend here, both feel it was a very positive and educational opportunity.

“We can come back (to the U.S.) and practice later,” said Thorvaldsen. “There is a test to take and pass and it is very hard.” But he thinks it would be worth the studying to be able to come back and continue sharing ideas and learning different things here.

“We will take back what we have learned and share it with others,” said Håpnes. In addition they have to write a “huge paper” much like a thesis. Håpnes has some vacation time and plans to travel before returning to Norway; Thorvaldsen will be going home next week when they are done with the program.

This is something new to WRHS, though they have students from around North Dakota and other states, it is the first time they have international exchange. It’s a program that it would like to continue to be a part of in the future.