In a darkened room in the small town of Coyolito in Valle, Honduras, Dr. Gerald Soltis shines a light into the eyes of an elderly man. The man’s grandson, appearing to be no more than five years old, sits apprehensively at his side and holds his hand.
“Can you see the light?” asks Dr. Soltis gently.
As the man speaks in cracked and hushed tones, a translator confirms that the man is unable to see anything, even light. Dr. Soltis discovers during his exam that a failed prior surgery, meant to save the man’s eyes after a head injury, robbed him of whatever sight remained. The doctor’s only recourse is to refer him to a surgeon in the capital, Tegucigalpa, who can hopefully relieve the pressure that is causing him great pain.
Such moments are frequently experienced on medical brigades. Each year, the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine sends a team of doctors and students to serve a medically underserved community in Honduras, an impoverished country in Central America. Although a brigade cannot cure all conditions it encounters, such a team can alleviate much suffering and help ensure treatable conditions do not lead to permanent injury or death.
The trip is organized under the umbrella of the Global Medical Brigades, a student-led global health and sustainable development organization that sends more than 3,000 volunteers and medical professionals each year to help organize mobile medical clinics in communities lacking access to basic medical resources.
Most participants of the medical brigade are medical students, but graduate students in the medical sciences program also are encouraged to participate. The program not only furthers students’ classroom experience, but also commonly exposes them to relevant, hands-on experiences in the medical field. The medical school’s annual mission trip to Honduras is a prime example. In the past two years, six medical sciences students have chosen to participate.
When students travel to Honduras, they are departing from a country that provides most of its residents with ready access to medical care. A quick search for the term “doctor” in Huntington, W.Va., on Superpages.com, for example, returns about 500 listings. According to the University of California Atlas on Global Inequality, however, the Republic of Honduras provides only a few dozen doctors for a city of comparable size. For some people, this means living more than 20 miles from a doctor—a journey that can take hours due to the mountainous landscape. The cost of such a trip plus medical care and medications is prohibitive, as most families subsist on less than two dollars per day.
Consequently, according to the Global Medical Brigades, the most common causes of death in Honduras are easily preventable and curable illnesses such as diarrhea, parasitic infections, and even the common cold. Honduras is one of the four poorest countries in the Americas, and the Pan American Health Organization is seeking to fill in the health gaps within the country. Each year, the Marshall medical brigade plays a role in helping to reach for this goal.
In the past two years, the brigades from Marshall have seen more than 2,400 patients and distributed more than $26,000 worth of medical supplies and medications. During both brigades, Dr. Charles Clements, a Marshall medical school professor, has accompanied the students as the lead physician. Each day of the trip, the members of the brigade set up a triage, pharmacy, dental station, and eye exam room. A typical day on a brigade consists of traveling early in the morning to a distant village, setting up a mobile clinic by 10 a.m., and working tirelessly until the last patient is seen. Many patients walk for hours on foot to be seen in the clinics, having no other access to medical care.
Medical sciences program graduate students, though not yet medical professionals, have been able to serve many critical roles in the brigade. They are able to complete triage questionnaires with patients, take patient vital signs, distribute medications at the pharmacy and explain their proper use, assist the ophthalmologist with eye exams, and serve as translators.
According to Aaron Dom, a 2010 participant, this trip not only provided him valuable medical experience and assisted him in his medical school applications, but also underscored his desire to become a physician. “It really reinforced why I want to help take care of people,” Dom said.
In the past two years, the brigades from Marshall have treated more than 2,400 patients and distributed more than $26,000 worth of medical supplies and medications. Rotem Elitsur, a former medical sciences student and current medical student, poses with one of her youngest patients.
Another medical sciences student and brigade participant, Amy Young, said the most valuable lesson she learned on the trip was teamwork. Amy’s experiences showed her that “in the field of medicine, teamwork is essential. When good teamwork is involved, patient satisfaction and the quality of care that a patient receives is tremendous.” She discovered that every pair of hands available was critical to meeting the needs of the patients who had come seeking care.
In addition to providing medical care, medical sciences students have the opportunity to provide further assistance to the communities they visit. This includes spending time with children in schools and orphanages and participating in public health projects.
Medical health brigades are dramatically improving the health of the people of Honduras. Students who participate in such a volunteer project display great empathy, and what they experience while on the trip further engages their desire to impact the lives of patients. These students can only become better physicians as a result, and Marshall looks forward to sending many more graduate and medical students in the future.
Members of the local medical community are welcome to contact the medical school regarding participation in or donation to future brigades. Eye doctors and dentists are especially sought after for this trip; if just one more of each joined the next brigade, nearly double the number of patients could be seen. For more information about participating in the brigade in the summer of 2012, contact Jacob Kilgore at firstname.lastname@example.org.