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Global Medical Brigades Provide Healthcare In Panama Over Spring Break

While the majority of Penn State students spent spring break on the beach with friends or at home with family, an industrious few spent their week doing something more unique.

More than 40 students from Penn State Hershey’s chapter of the Global Medical Brigades traveled to Yaviza, Panama to implement sustainable health programs and educate the community. As the largest student-led social responsibility movement in the world, the mission of the National Global Brigades is to enable volunteers to assist under-resourced communities and work together towards a more equal planet. “It truly felt like we were a small part of a large-scale continued effort to make an impact,” said Sarayna Schock, a student in the Penn State Hershey College of Medicine who attended the brigade.

Of the four countries that the Global Medical Bridges program visits, Panama’s wealth gap is the most significant. Panama City appears alive and affluent; however, behind the skyscrapers and billboards of the city lies a countryside population that remains in deep poverty. Poverty currently affects more than 30 percent of the population because of the nation’s poor transportation structure and patterns of urban migration.

From March 12 to March 17, the Global Medical Brigades students visited Yaviza, a rural community that sits at the end of the Pan-American Highway and serves as a cultural cross-section for the diverse population of the country. “Our main goal is to provide a global primary care medical experience to medical, nursing and PA students while providing quality care to an under-served area in Panama,” said Dr. Eileen Hennrikus, a mentor for the volunteering students.

Dr. Hennrikus has organized the trip over the last few years. “Four years ago, a few medical students were looking for doctors to accompany them on a medical brigades trip. They convinced my husband and I that it would be a worthwhile adventure. We’ve been going ever since, enjoying every moment of mentoring students, working with new faculty and staff and providing medical care to a population that doesn’t have access to much health care.”

The economy of the area relies on the agriculture industry, which remains too small to produce much income for the people there. Yaviza struggles to maintain efficient water and electricity supplies. While a water system is piped through most of the area, the water pressure is inadequate, and the system struggles to deliver the water supply to the edges of the community. Respiratory and skin diseases and parasitic infections are common, with social and addiction issues also prevalent in the community.

Global Medical Brigades volunteers set up a medical clinic in Yaviza with eight physicians, three dentists, and two pharmacists to guide them. Though the Pan-American Highway ends here, many people live in the jungle between Yaviza and the Columbian border, so some patients traveled nearly eight hours to seek medical attention. A line formed before the clinic even opened on the first day.

A standard day for the volunteering students was long, yet undoubtedly rewarding. Schock elaborated on what a typical day consisted of on the trip.

After waking up at 5 a.m. for breakfast, the students boarded the bus for the two-hour ride from their lodging to the clinic in Yaviza. As soon as they arrived, the students set up the clinic at a local school and began to attend to the patients already lined up outside.

taken by Dr. Eileen Hennrikus
Photo: Dr. Eileen Hennrikus

At the clinic, patients checked in to a desk where Panamanian staff recorded their identifying information. Patients were then assigned a degree of urgency for their medical needs based on observations of their vital signs in triage. Finally, each patient consulted with the overseeing physicians before visiting either the eyeglass station or the dental station, depending on their individual needs. The clinic also included a lab for patients in need of urine testing, pregnancy tests, EKGs, or other medical testing.

“My biggest excitement was finally being able to serve in the role as a physician-in-training and being able to work alongside such amazing, knowledgable physicians and pharmacists,” Schock said. “As students, we were expected to run the medical consultation on our own as if we were the physicians, with the overseeing physicians only interjecting some pertinent comments or suggestions here or there. It was a wonderful learning experience while providing valuable medical care, all at once.”

For many patients, this exam was their first time seeing a doctor this year, and for some, it was their first time ever seeing a doctor. Upon completing their initial consultation, patients checked in with the on-site pharmacy, which dispensed thousands of dollars worth of medication to patients who received prescriptions.

Students taught the patients a brief health lesson called a “charla” as they waited for their prescriptions to be filled. “In charla we taught patients the importance of dental hygiene and how to properly brush and floss,” Schock said. “We then played games where we had them identify what foods were healthy and which ones were unhealthy. The adults actually ended up enjoying the food games as much, if not more, than the kids.” Schock said. The group also provided each patient with anti-parasite medication and multivitamins.

From morning until lunchtime, students worked efficiently, observing patients with utmost care. During lunch, volunteers took turns eating before returning to work. With no set end time, the clinic remained active until the last patient was attended to.

Image Credit to Sarayna Schock
Photo: Sarayna Schock

Schock emphasized the genuine gratitude of the locals who entered the clinic. The patients responded to the medical volunteers with immense appreciation and welcomed them openly into their community.

“At the end of the second day, several of the patients that had been seen that day remarked as they were leaving, ‘see you tomorrow!’  Apparently they were so impressed by the medical care that they intended to spread the word and bring back family members the following day,” Schock said. “One patient on the second day told me how her two granddaughters were sick with fever at home and so she intended to bring them the third day for care.”

Between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., the clinic was packed up and the bus of volunteers traveled two hours back to their lodging site, where they ate dinner while reflecting on the day. They spent their time after dinner entering the patients’ medical information into a computer system in order to keep records for future brigades. Around 11 p.m., the volunteers finally turned in for a well-deserved night’s rest before waking up the next morning to start again.

Despite the long days, Schock recalled only fond memories of the trip. Her favorite memory is of an 80-year-old man who entered the clinic complaining of leg pain. He claimed the pain was from a fishing accident when he was only about twenty-five years old, and proceeded to tell the students a long story of his shark bite as he held out his elbow to display his scars.

Nothing appeared to be wrong with the man, so the students were not sure why he went to the clinic that day. After a second translator stepped in, they discovered that he really just enjoyed telling the story of his fishing injury, and was looking for a few good listeners to tell about his adventures.

“It was nice to be able to communicate with him, brighten up his day, and have him brighten up ours,” Schock said, “so we listened to his stories, gave him a thorough physical exam, and then prescribed him ibuprofen.”

Mitchell Dent, a senior in the College of Nursing, reflected on how rewarding it felt to treat over 800 patients in just three days.

“The most important lesson I learned was to not take for granted the medical care we have access to here in the United States. It is easy to complain when things don’t go our way, but this trip opened my eyes to the fact that there are always those who are worse off,” Dent said.

The smiles on the faces of the children in the clinic humbled him. “Even though these children were facing an extremely tough life, they were still happy with the simplicity of their life and weren’t pouting given the circumstances,” he explained.

Image Credit to Sarayna Schock
Photo: Sarayna Schock

Even after four years of participation, Dr. Hennrikus remains rapt at the immeasurable rewards of the brigades. “[I love] seeing all the love, seeing all the students striving to make a difference in the lives of people much more unfortunate than themselves,” she said.

Both Schock and Dent raised money for the trip through personal fundraising pages and as part of the Penn State Hershey Global Brigades chapter’s fundraising efforts. The group sold t-shirts, held fundraising nights at local restaurants, and applied for grants to cover some of the costs of medicine for the trip. The group even received a certificate of appreciation for their care from the mayor of the town.

“The yearly organization is time consuming and I’m never certain that it will all fall in place, but somehow, every year it does. It’s a miracle,” Dr. Hennrikus said. “We’ve added on additional components to the trip every year so that it now includes two days in Panama City to experience the canal, some cultural events, a hospital medical conference and tours of the Children’s Hospital and Social Security Hospital.”

Dent emphasized the future opportunities available for other students to get involved in brigades of their own. “It was the perfect opportunity to combine my love for traveling with my desire to help and serve. However, prior to going on the medical brigade I had no idea how humbling and educational the trip would be,” he said. “I was both humbled and proud to have served the people of Panama and would encourage all those interested in getting involved with Global Brigades to take the leap of faith and join a chapter in their journey to help those who are less fortunate than many of us are.” 

About the Author

Olivia DeBellis

Olivia DeBellis is a writer for Onward State. She is currently a freshman pursuing a double major in Food Science and Nutrition here in Happy Valley. She enjoys people watching, long runs with food at the finish, and binge watching HGTV. Follow her @OliviaADeBellis or send her an email at [email protected]

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