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Helping hands in Honduras

By Kari VanDerVeen
September 16, 2010

When Mayo Clinic physician John Bachman invited several Oles to join a group of medical students traveling to Honduras this summer to provide health care, it was an opportunity they couldn't refuse.

Elizabeth Wanous '11 (in pink shirt) and Mayo Medical School student Christy Spampinato talk to a Honduran woman and her children during a weeklong medical brigade to that country this summer.

Bayard Carlson '11, Elizabeth Wanous '11, Tye Humphrey '13, and Ryan Franz '06 worked side-by-side with Mayo Medical School students to set up a mobile clinic in a different rural Honduran village each day for a week. The students met with patients and developed diagnoses and treatment plans, which were reviewed by a physician. When they weren’t running a clinic station, the students led patient education sessions, pulled teeth, administered fluoride treatments, sorted medications, managed patient flow through the clinic, and talked with villagers.

"We were really encouraged to build relationships with the patients and, in the process, got to know their stories," Carlson says. "We met some incredible people who have experienced great hardships in their lives, and the ability to help them was truly inspirational."

The trip was organized through Global Brigades, an international network of volunteer organizations that travel to developing countries and provide health care and other services to improve the quality of life in under-resourced communities. More than half the population in Honduras lives in poverty, making mobile clinics like the one the Oles worked in the only opportunity many people have to obtain health care.

Their experience was so rewarding that Carlson and Wanous — along with Adrienne Pompeian '12, who went on an earlier service trip to Honduras — are working to launch a medical brigade for St. Olaf students. They’re following a process that Global Brigades has outlined for setting up a program on campus and have already received offers of assistance from St. Olaf faculty members.

The group hopes to have Oles on a brigade to Honduras in 2012. To reach that goal, the students need to partner with a physician willing to accompany and advise the group. "Physicians, physical therapists, pharmacists, nurses, dentists, optometrists, and other health care professionals, as well as adults proficient in Spanish, will be necessary in future brigades," says Wanous, who is returning to Honduras in January for a six-month Global Brigades volunteer program.

Bayard Carlson '11 plays soccer with a group of children during a break in clinic work in Honduras.

A Mayo Clinic connection
Carlson and Wanous owe the opportunity to join Bachman and his Mayo Medical School students at least in some part to fellow St. Olaf student Pompeian. She accompanied Bachman's group on a medical brigade to Honduras in February after one of the Mayo students canceled at the last minute. Having a proficient Spanish-speaker from St. Olaf proved so useful in Honduran clinics that Bachman turned to the college to find participants for this summer's trip. St. Olaf Associate Professor of Biology and Director of Biomedical Studies Jean Porterfield connected him with several students fluent in Spanish and interested in health care.

The experience this summer reminded the St. Olaf students why they're pursuing a career in medicine. Many of the patients they saw in Honduras suffered from aches and illnesses that are often easily treated in the U.S., and Bachman encouraged the students to listen to their patients and learn about their lives so they could better understand how to treat them. Each day the students also set up a charla, or chat, where they would educate villagers about personal hygiene, the importance of clean water, proper nutrition, and an especially lethal strain of dengue fever that had just broken out.

When asked what type of medicine she hopes to one day practice, Wanous doesn't mention a specific field or specialty. Instead, she points out that she’d like to provide the type of care she learned to give during this trip: "Culturally sensitive, competent, and compassionate medicine."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or vanderve@stolaf.edu.