Wash. U. students leave a lasting mark: global brigades in Honduras

The WUSTL Medical and Dental Brigadiers

This winter break, riding in the back of a pickup truck along a bumpy mountain road in Honduras, a small team of Wash. U. students visited the home of a victim of yellow fever. An old woman had come into the village to get medication for her son, and we decided to send a group to her home to see the conditions for ourselves. The road was long and steep, with even a small river to cross. It was unbelievable to think that the woman had traveled so far on foot to reach our clinic. At the house, we saw her son lying on a mat on the porch with his limbs sprawled out. Yellow fever at birth had doomed him to live paralyzed, in a cerebral palsy-like state, for the rest of his life. We explained the situation to the mother and provided her with pain-relief medicine, as her son lifted his head with an occasional spasm. With this patient behind us, we headed back down the mountain to continue our mission with Global Brigades.

Global Brigades (GB) is the largest student-run global health and sustainable development organization in the world. We operate using a holistic model—by approaching international community development from different angles, we are able to effect sustainable changes in communities in Central America. This year, Wash. U. GB ran eight different student brigades: medical, public health, dental, microfinance, architecture, water, environmental and a combined medical/public health brigade.

In many rural Honduran villages, it is difficult for patients to access medical attention, because of limited access to a city or an inability to pay for procedures. Many medical issues are therefore left unaddressed and lead to more severe problems. When Global Brigades enters a community and sets up a clinic, villagers from that community, as well as surrounding communities, have the opportunity to receive medical attention that they otherwise would not have received. Many patients walk for hours to reach our temporary clinic, but no walk is too far.

Fifteen medical brigadiers, one M.D. and nine dental brigadiers traveled to Honduras, along with separate public health and microfinance brigades. Our group stayed in a compound an hour outside of Tegucigalpa. Each morning, we traveled two hours to the community of La Chichigua, far into the Honduran mountains, to set up a medical/dental clinic. Brigadiers work together in the same community, and patients were able to receive both medical and dental care, as well as learn about important preventive health measures. While the most routine diagnoses were parasites and fungal infections, some brigadiers observed the effects of malnutrition on infants, as well as severe birth defects. Dental brigadiers ran a “charla” for children, in which we provided children with Fluoride treatments and taught them how to brush their teeth and floss. Additionally, brigadiers shadowed our dentist, Dr. Fatima. While Dr. Fatima did some restorations, the majority of her procedures were tooth extractions. Because there is no dental care nearby and resources are limited, extractions are the only option for many villagers.

As much as the experience was special for us, it was clear that we truly had an impact on the people of La Chichigua. They showed up to triage wearing their sharpest clothes and went through the long process with smiles and tremendous gratitude that are rarely found in an American waiting room. Not one community member verbally complained about his extractions, even a man who had fourteen teeth extracted. The children were always happy to see us and never stopped laughing as we played games together. The laughter was shared both ways, as we played along with all of their games and we were surprised when we found out that, even in this remote region of the world, “Gangnam Style” was a huge hit. As we drove away from the community every day, we would see kids waving goodbye, wearing the cowboy hats and clown wigs we left for them.

There is no reason for Wash. U. students to stay inside the “Wash. U. bubble” and miss out on the many opportunities to explore the world. By stepping outside of this bubble, anyone can become more aware of other cultures, while making a significant difference. Traveling to another part of the world puts our seemingly major problems and concerns into a new perspective. It also leads to incredibly rewarding service and experience; seeing the immediate impact of our work teaches us more than any lecture could. When we parted ways with the community on our last day, the mayor expressed his gratitude to our team as villagers stood crying. We were all sad to leave Honduras, but we left with the mayor’s parting words: “We will never forget you and the work you have done here. This isn’t a goodbye, but a see you later; we want to see you again.”

For more information about getting involved, contact washugb@gmail.com.