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Medical endeavors

Students travel to Honduras to aid locals over February break

By Gabrielle Santoro
On March 4, 2012

Located in Central America, Honduras is a nation with a rich history of relations between its native and non-native populations, resulting from its colonization by Spain. Honduras experienced a recent political shift due to presidential failure to address national concerns with its citizens, including health and security. Former President Manuel Zelaya was removed from his position by the military in 2009 under Supreme Court order; Porfirio Lobo now serves as president. Even with this change, many Hondurans are still faced with barriers to their welfare, including a high rate of poverty and lack of health services, especially in rural areas.

Global Brigades is a nonprofit umbrella organization that sends student volunteers to provide aid in three countries: Ghana, Panama, and Honduras. The group has nine programs that stem from the overall effort to improve development in these countries. It is the "largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization," according to its website.

This past February break, members of the recently inaugurated Brandeis chapter of Global Brigades participated in a medical brigade in Honduras. They engaged in volunteer services at a clinic, providing medical services and attention to the members of the rural community in El Jute, and constructed a water pipeline to a house to finish off the entire water system in the village of El Canton.

Bharvi Patel '14, the president and co-founder of the Brandeis chapter of Global Brigades, said her interest in the organization began after she spoke with a cousin who participated in a Global Medical Brigades trip to Honduras through Pennsylvania State University.

"I saw that the work that Global Brigades was doing was not only making great impacts, but [it] was also very sustainable," she said in an interview with the Justice. "That was something that I wanted to be a part of."

Danielle Borin '12, was also intrigued by the mission of the organization and got involved out of a desire "to [see] medicine in a different country," she said.

After establishing a chapter at the University, the chapter leaders organized 20 students who were committed to preparing for a trip to Honduras. Borin shares that "we had to have at least 4,000 to 5,000 dollars worth of medication." Members obtained these funds by hosting a fundraiser dinner and two grilled cheese delivery events.

After arriving, the group visited with Honduran President Lobo at the presidential house. Lindsey Weiss '14 noted that they "actually got to go to the presidential house and met him because his daughter goes to the International Business School here. … We ended up going to the US ambassador to Honduras' house [afterwards]. So we had dinner at her house, and then met the director of the Peace Corps," she said in an interview with the Justice.

After packaging the medicine and creating labels and instructions for it, the group drove to the community of El Jute to begin their three-day medical brigade. "On the first day [at the clinic] we had at least 40 people waiting to seek medical attention," Weiss said. With five doctors present, including two dentists and a gynecologist, three stations were set up to tend to patients. All of the doctors at the clinic were Honduran and coordinated with Global Brigades to set up clinics like these.

Patel shared her positive experience of assisting one of the doctors. "Although he had to see about 150 patients a day, he took the time to talk with each of his patients, and make them feel comfortable, she said. "And every step of the way, [he taught] me why he was doing something, and [took] the moment to explain why this medication worked for this case and not another." While assisting, Patel gained confidence in providing care to patients and properly diagnosing them.

Another one of the Brigade's effective programs that the group engaged in was a discussion of hygiene and preventative health measures called "Charla." Charla is a component of the Global Medical Brigade's mission to eliminate future illnesses and conditions by teaching practices like brushing teeth and washing hands. Borin said her role was to educate children about proactive ways to keep healthy. "Initially, the kids were nervous—I was nervous. It was difficult with the language barrier, but as I tried being goofy [while] I was teaching, it became fun," she said. "When they all laughed at a joke, it made me feel really good to know that they were gaining something from me."

However, these proactive approaches did not end at the clinic. The chapter also went to the town of El Canton to build a water pipeline. Patel noted the significant role that the group was able to play in this community project.

"After a year and 29 brigades, [almost] every home had a pipeline connected to it from the main source of water. There was one last home left to connect in order to finish the whole water system and let it run. We were very fortunate to be that last brigade to build [the last connection to the system]," she said.

Borin explained the impact of the water system. "The water system should last 40 years. Results show an 85 percent decrease in parasites seen in previous water systems [built by Global Brigades in Honduras]," she said. The clean water that this pipeline provides will limit the number of patients who would otherwise come to a Global Medical Brigades clinic in need of medication for parasites and other symptoms that come with unfiltered water.

Akash Vadalia '12 described building the last water pipeline to complete the town's entire system as "an emotional experience."

"We understood the importance of our efforts to finish [the system], and subsequently worked very hard," he said.

Finishing the system was not the group's only goal or the greater Global Brigades's only aim. Borin mentioned the importance of the water system as a means to prevent parasite contraction, which was "a common ailment that we saw at the clinic."

"The community was trained to be self-sufficient. They are prepared to maintain the system themselves," Borin continued.

The participants of this brigade covered a lot of ground in their time in Honduras; Vadalia noted that "about 400 patients were served."

Overall, the participants found the week rewarding.

"I thought that it would be a great experience for us ... to get out of the Brandeis bubble, and [see] what it's like for people who don't have access to resources to medical care that we take for granted," Vadalia said. "My experience with Global Medical Brigades blew my expectations out of the water."

Looking towards the future, the Brandeis chapter has plans to expand their work with Global Brigades. Patel plans to share her experience with other students and encourage their participation.

"Next year, we are planning to expand to two different brigades, a medical and a public health brigade," she said. "I'm sure that, just as we were inspired, others who get involved ... will [experience] the same reward."


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