Ashkan Akasheh wanted to spend his summer break from medical school doing cardiology research and having the adventure of a lifetime. In one of the poorest, most remote areas of China, he found both.

Akasheh and two fellow students spent three weeks with radiological sciences professor Robert Detrano studying cardiovascular health and providing much-needed treatment to rural farming families in China’s Yunnan Province.

Their work took them to small, mile-high villages near the Vietnam border where most families subsist on less than the equivalent of $100 a year. Akasheh worked 12-hour days, battled headaches and insect bites, and endured unending rain and an exotic, spicy diet of dog meat and fried bees.

“We went to places where it was rare for them to see foreigners,” Akasheh says. “The villagers gave us a lot of double takes, but everyone was incredibly nice and treated us practically like royalty. It was very touching, and I was excited to be there.”

Their efforts are making an impact on some of the hundreds of millions of Chinese farmers who have no access to modern healthcare. Detrano’s group, the China-California Heart Watch, strives to impart heart disease knowledge in China through research, treatment and teaching.

In addition to providing basic hypertension and heart disease screening, the group works with the Chinese Red Cross to identify children with congenital heart disease for simple surgical repairs.

Akasheh used ultrasound to study the correlation between high blood pressure and enlarged hearts in Yunnan Province farmers and is submitting his findings to a research journal.

“I have a particular interest in cardiology and want to shine a light on this ongoing problem,” Akasheh says. “If treatments do not become available to these farmers, it could become a health disaster.

“I’ve been a medical volunteer in the past in Costa Rica,” he adds, “and even though people there and in China are poor, they are hard-working, happy and grateful for whatever we do to provide healthcare. We become doctors to help other people, whether they are here in America or in some of the poorest places on Earth. This work keeps me rooted, and I’m honored to do it.”