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Bringing health care to rural Honduras

By Jessica Moes '14 and Kari VanDerVeen
April 26, 2012

St. Olaf sophomores Jamison Watson-Van Oosbr (center) and Greta Richeson take a patient's vitals during the first Ole Global Medical Brigade. The students, who were accompanied by several medical professionals with ties to the college, saw nearly 400 patients during the week they spent in Honduras.

The more than two dozen St. Olaf College students who traveled to Honduras this January as part of the first Ole Global Medical Brigade helped provide health care to hundreds of patients with a wide range of aches and illnesses.

Yet the patient who made the biggest impact showed up at their mobile clinic in perfect health.

The woman, a diabetic, had walked a considerable distance to get to the clinic. All of her test results looked great, though, and the St. Olaf students overseeing her care were confused as to why she was there.

"She told us that nothing was wrong, but that she had been very sick last time Global Brigades had visited her community," says Lindsay Kubina '12, one of the organizers of this year's St. Olaf Global Medical Brigade. "She just wanted to show us the good our work was doing for her and her community."

That, say the students, sums up perfectly why this program is so valuable: it enables undergraduate students to get hands-on experience in global health care while actually seeing that the care they provide makes a difference.

"It's about the medical experience," says Nick Hoverstad '14, a participant on the trip. "But it's also about growing as a person and gaining empathy and compassion. It's about becoming a citizen of the world and recognizing what that means."

St. Olaf students are already making plans for next year's Ole Global Medical Brigade, holding information sessions this week and next and connecting with area businesses to ask for supply donations. Several of the students who went on this year's brigade plan to go again during the next Interim break, but organizers are looking for more students — as well as alumni working in the medical field — interested in attending.

The 28 St. Olaf students who went on this year's brigade set up a mobile clinic in Alauca, Honduras, a rural community just north of the Nicaraguan border. 

Building a global brigade
The Ole Global Medical Brigade is a subset of the Global Brigades program, an international network of university students and volunteers who travel to developing countries and provide health care and other services to improve the quality of life in under-resourced communities. The St. Olaf chapter is one of just two Global Brigades programs in Minnesota, with the other run through the Mayo Medical School in Rochester.

Students at St. Olaf began working to create a Global Brigades program on campus after several Oles went on brigade trips through other schools and realized that the program would be a good fit for the college. Adrienne Pompeian '12, who first went on a Global Brigades trip through Loyola University in Chicago at the recommendation of a physician she worked with during her sophomore year, and Kubina officially launched a chapter of the program at St. Olaf last year.

"Students here are so passionate and willing to give back, and so many want to do this through health-related services," Pompeian says. "Our goal in developing this program was to give more students an opportunity to do medical work abroad."

Providing care
The 28 St. Olaf students who went on this year's brigade were accompanied by three health care professionals with ties to the college: Swarna Latha, a family practice physician and mother of Anisha Chada '15; Greg Melcher, a physician specializing in infectious disease and father of Sarah Melcher '12; and Elizabeth Gunhus '87, a pediatric nurse practitioner.

Together the students and medical professionals set up a clinic in Alauca, Honduras, a rural community just north of the Nicaraguan border. Within the clinic, they had six stations: a "triage" station where students took and recorded patients' vitals; a consultation station where medical professionals made diagnoses, and students shadowed their work and aided with translation and recording data; a dental station; a gynecological station; a pharmacy station; and, finally, a charla (Spanish for "chat") station where students, along with local community leaders, led patients in discussions about leading a healthy lifestyle.

"The doctors told us what they were thinking while they made diagnoses, and we looked at things like rashes and fungi and got to interact with patients firsthand," says Hoverstad. 

Sixty-five percent of the population in Honduras lives in poverty, making mobile clinics like the one the Oles established the only opportunity many people have to obtain health care. The St. Olaf students raised enough money to bring 30 suitcases filled with medical supplies to Honduras, and they provided care to 399 patients during their week in the country.

"I had always been interested in finding a medical service trip that focused on primary and preventative care," says Gunhus. "This trip gave me the unique opportunity to do just that with an amazing group of students."

In addition to providing medical care, the group spent the last day of their trip working with another branch of Global Brigades called Water Brigades. As part of that program, they dug trenches and laid pipes to bring clean running water to Honduran communities. "It was evident that many of the health conditions we saw in clinic, such as parasites, were a result of the lack of resources such as clean water," says Pompeian. "Helping create a sustainable water system brings the community one step closer to a sustainable health system."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or