Photo by Gianna Ferrarin

While many Penn students choose to spend their summers pursuing internships in big cities, 11 nursing, pre-med and pre-dental students opted to spend part of their summer break in Nicaragua setting up clinics and providing health care to rural communities.

For a week in May, members of UPenn Global Medical Brigades took patients' vital signs, filled out prescriptions, shadowed physicians and recorded patient histories for the people of La Estrella, a rural community in Nicaragua. They also helped dig trenches and set up a water pipeline for a nearby community called El Hatillo.

Over the course of the trip, which was coordinated through the non-profit Global Brigades, the volunteers provided treatment to 1500 patients.

College senior Mnali Patel said the most memorable part of the trip was the “charla,” which translates to “chat.” In this activity, students used song, dance and interactive games to teach children basic dental hygiene. Patel, who is a pre-dental student, recalls a four-year-old girl who brushed her teeth for almost ten minutes after learning how to brush them properly.

“[She would] run to me, grab my leg and want more toothpaste,” Patel said. “It became like a little game for her. She was laughing and having so much fun.”

Though all the volunteers learned “medical Spanish” in order to interact with patients, the students already fluent in Spanish could provide additional support for members of the community. 

College sophomore Tanya Jain said knowing Spanish helped her when patients wanted somebody to talk to about their physical and mental wellbeing.

“When you would ask patients what their problems were," Jain said, "they would give you [a list] of all the things they’d experienced for months without medical care."

These medical problems ranged from common ailments such as high blood pressure and ulcers to those caused by poor water quality, such as intestinal problems and diarrhea. Many remained untreated until these free medical clinics arrived because there were no hospitals in the area. 

Jain said she was initially skeptical of the trip because organizations like Global Brigades often focus on providing intermittent care rather than working with local governments to create a sustainable healthcare system. Jain said she raised these concerns during the trip and learned that Global Brigades seeks to pursue a more community-based approach to healthcare by engaging local, Nicaraguan doctors. 

“A lot of other brigades will come in and just bring in supplies,” Jain said. “But we had doctors from the community come in who knew the system.”

College junior Michelle Yang said she appreciated the chance to learn from and build a relationship with one of these Nicaraguan doctors. The doctor told Yang that she was persistent in getting into English language classes because she knew they would help in her medical career.

Yang also said the trip helped her rekindle her passion for medicine, which she said is sometimes difficult to keep in mind amid all the studying and extensive pre-med extracurriculars. 

“As a pre-med student it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Yang said. “Seeing people who don’t have access to these necessities get them through us was really fulfilling.”

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