For the past year, we have been actively involved in a club at school called MESO, which stands for Medical Educational Service Opportunities. Throughout the year we spent time volunteering in the Ann Arbor community (activities which included medical supply drives and cleanup projects), and also in MESO workshops which included basic training of CPR, monitoring vital signs, and screening patients for the physicians.
We were able to implement the skills learned in the workshops when we traveled to Nicaragua for two weeks this summer, where we worked in free health clinics. MESO worked with Global Medical Training (GMT), which is a humanitarian non-profit organization run by experienced doctors. GMT provides free medical services to needy communities in Central America, and they also supply a small pharmacy where they prescribe medications and nutritional supplements that the majority of Nicaragua is unable to afford.
The clinics we set up were located in small churches in communities outside of Granada and Leon. The communities consisted of small, one room, dirt floor shacks that families, of about six, would share with their pigs, chickens, dogs, and cats. Very few had running water and electricity. When talking to some of the locals, we found they lived on rice and beans and made about $25 a month from working in the fields. The people were aware they had a rough life, yet they were some of the most high-spirited people we've ever met. As one lady told us, "We may be poor, but we're happy. That's all that matters."
In the clinics, a group of three or four pre-health students would work with a translator and retrieve personal information and symptoms from the patient. Once the group had agreed on a diagnosis, a doctor would be called over to review the decision, and from there a prescription would be written out. The doctors we worked with were extremely knowledgeable and very helpful when it came to teaching us how to work with patients. We learned how to fully evaluate a patient and ask him or her questions about their personal life and living situations in order to correctly diagnose them.
The most common diagnoses made in the medical clinics were of parasites, malnutrition, STDs, high blood pressure, and digestion problems. We were able to give patients medication, and even though it was only about one month's worth, it was still better than nothing.
The most heartbreaking thing we discovered was that the lifestyles of these people forced them to put health care on a back burner. Cooking, cleaning, caring for children, and working in the fields forced many of the locals to live with symptoms for months or even years. One lady, who Claire worked with, complained of severe lower abdominal pain that she had been having for the past two weeks. With the help of a doctor, they discovered she had appendicitis. Not knowing any better, this lady had been ignoring her pain and threatening her life for days in order to care for her family.
Before the trip, we did not realize what a hands-on experience this would be. We were able to take blood pressure readings, clean wounds, take UTI tests, and Catherine even got to give anesthetic and pull a tooth when helping out in the dental clinic.
We found the trip to be a very rewarding and eye opening experience. Not only were we available to help with immediate health issues, but we were also able to educate the patients on how to practice healthier lifestyles and how to deal with future health problems.
To see a whole village clapping and cheering as our bus pulled away made us realize how appreciated our work was. But it wasn't just us giving medical help to the less fortunate in Nicaragua; we were able to take away a new appreciation for health care and gain a hands-on experience that can never be taught in our future health care education.
Overall we had an amazing experience, and both of us are interested in returning to Central America for another trip. The relationships we made with our fellow students, the GMT doctors and staff, and our patients will not be forgotten, nor will the lessons we learned. Our learning went well beyond the medical training as we witnessed the hardship of everyday life that the citizens would handle without a complaint, the difficult decisions that had to be made due to their small earnings, and the hospitality that they displayed toward us. We are grateful for the opportunity that we had to visit a beautiful country, meet some amazing people, and gain valuable knowledge about health care.