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WVU enrollees spend spring break on medical trip to Honduras

Apr. 14, 2013 @ 10:25 PM

Spring break for many young people means relaxing at the beach or sleeping in, but for two West Virginia University students, the week of March 23-30 was a time of giving back to a world they say has given them so much.

Erin Barthelmess, 20, and Katie Morrison, 21, both of Hurricane, spent their spring break taking vitals and listening to patients’ symptoms in the Central American country of Honduras.

The two girls were part of a group of 40 from West Virginia University, sponsored by Global Brigade, which included students, a pharmacist, a gynecologist, and a dentist. According to their website, Global Brigade is the largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization in the world. Each chapter participates in at least one week-long brigade into the countries of Honduras, Ghana, and Panama.

With more than 380 Global Brigade chapters, each chapter is run by student leaders who are passionate about sustainable development. Along with the Global Medical Brigade, others include Global architecture, business, dental, environmental, law, microfinance, public health, and water.

Its mission is to resolve health and economic disparities by empowering student volunteers, local professionals, and community members in a collaborative, holistic approach to sustainable development.   

Katie Morrison said she and Barthelmess became interested in the trip when they saw the group on a campus website. To be considered for the Global Medical Brigade, one should have a medical background, experience in pharmacy, or have special language skills. Both women are pre-med students. Barthelmess had pharmaceutical experience, and they both speak Spanish.

Students pay their own way, plus they help raise money to buy pharmacy supplies to take with them. The chapter donated its leftover money and paid the Honduran doctors who came to help them in their clinic.

The girls wanted to join the Brigade for different reasons. Morrison said along with the lure of visiting a foreign country was a strong desire to help people. In addition, the trip would also help her chances for entering medical school.  

“I definitely thought it was a way I could give back. I had never been out of the country before and I knew it would look good on my application for medical school,” she said.

The trip itself took about six hours — three hours to Houston and three more to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Their adventure started when they landed at 1 p.m. on Friday.

Honduras is located in Central America, bordered to the west by Guatemala, to the southwest by El Salvador, and to the southeast by Nicaragua. It is a land of rain forests, cloud forests, mangroves, savannas, and mountain ranges.  Barthelmess said her first view of Honduras made her think a little of home.

“It reminded me of West Virginia — the mountains are similar to West Virginia.” She said the people were poor, making only about $20 to $30 a week. In addition, after the lingering cold weather in the United States, she had to get accustomed to the heat.

“It was very very hot — not the rainy season, but it rained on two of the days. The hottest day it was 93 degrees. We had our malaria pills and bug spray,” she explained.

The group stayed in a compound owned by Global Medical Brigades.

“We stayed with kids from the University of Southern California and got to know one another,” Barthelmess said.

On their first full day, Saturday, students separated the medicine they had brought with them and put them in baggies for the patients when they arrived the next day. In the afternoon, they went to an orphanage called Nuevo Paraiso where they played with the children who lived there. Each participant brought toys and stickers for the children, who were excited when they saw the toys carried into the room.

“They said, ‘Amiga, Amiga’ — they really responded to the stickers,” she said.

“It was a lot of fun. I think they enjoyed it,” Barthelmess added.

Morrison said visiting the orphanage was moving.

“They definitely put a smile on my face. They were genuinely thankful for the Beanie Babies,” she said.  

On Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday the group ran a medical clinic. Students would take temperatures, take patients’ blood pressures, weigh them, and record their symptoms. The patient would then go see the doctor or the dentist. The pharmacist was present to ensure they were getting the correct dosage.  

“I’m not a doctor. The students were only doing what they were qualified to do.” She added that most of the people see doctors infrequently.

“It’s a very poor area. Most people see a doctor every other year. Hopefully, we get to every community twice a year.  We saw over 500 patients,” she said.

As in the United States, complaints were mostly headache and colds. People were also prescribed medicine for lice, fungus and parasites. Barthelmess said they seemed to appreciate the group’s visit.

“They were so grateful. A lot came up and said, ‘Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.’”

“It was such a humbling experience,” Barthelmess said. One little girl showed her appreciation for Morrison a little differently.

“It was during triage. While I was talking to her mother, the little girl came over and held my hand,” she said.

Barthelmess said most residents live in very small houses with mud floors, which were prime breeding grounds for bacteria and fungus.

“The stove was in the back yard. The biggest (house) we saw was divided into three rooms. Usually no doors or windows with a sheet hanging to keep dust and dirt out,” she said.

She  added that the town had schools, but most students did not go past the sixth grade.

In addition to the general doctors, a gynecologist from WVU came with them to perform pap smears. Someone would return within two weeks with the results of the tests.   

“If something did show up they would recommend a specialist,” Barthelmess said.

Before leaving Honduras, the group joined the Global Public Health Brigade, which is part of the Global Brigade, to help build. The group met with a man named Juan who had five children. The students helped the family build an outdoor toilet, a private shower, and a latrine to wash their hands and dishes.

“We built concrete floors for them,” she said. The family was overjoyed with the group’s work.

“The male was so grateful. He was almost in tears. That was amazing as well,” she said.

When one travels to foreign countries, food is always uppermost on the mind. Will you like it? Barthelmess said the group was fed at the compound by people hired by Global. They ate a lot of rice, beans and tortillas, kabobs, fresh fruit and juice every day. For breakfast they ate eggs and vegetables and the ever-present beans and tortillas.

“Everything was made from scratch,” she said.

Despite learning Spanish during high school or college, it can be intimidating when one has to communicate with those native to the area. The girls were picked to go partly because they could speak Spanish so they could serve as translators. It was difficult at first.  

“They speak very, very fast. It got better over the week,” Barthelmess said. “It definitely helped my Spanish,” she added.

Morrison said working with Global Medical Brigade reinforced her desire to be a doctor. It also made her thankful for what she had.

“It helped me to better understand that I want to be a doctor and impact other people’s lives,” she said. She also had a lot of respect for the way the people of Honduras dealt with their difficult lives.

“In that country, they struggle — they are grateful for what they have and make the most of it,” she said.

Barthelmess said she had learned a lot.

“I just learned so much about myself; we are blessed here in the States. It was such a humbling experience, probably the best experience of my life,” Barthelmess said. “The next time I am complaining about no hot water, etc. — it is not important in the whole scheme of things,” she said.