Half a world away, students dispense meds and goodwill

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Half a world away, students dispense meds and goodwill

Sarah C.B. Guthrie

[Click arrows in photos above for slideshow.]

The day after final exams ended in June, 43 UW pharmacy students met before dawn at SeaTac. Seventeen hours later they landed, bleary-eyed but eager, at Managua's airport. They queued through customs, bearing certifications from Nicaragua's Ministry of Health, and met their in-country coordinator. Then they set out for Esteli, a small village they'd call home for the next five days. 

Don Downing
(Click to enlarge.) Before opening the clinic in Esteli, the students toured area's countryside. Cameron Garner takes a picture of Hannah DeMeritt.
Cameron Garner takes a picture of Hannah DeMeritt with Nicaragua's mountains in the background.
Before opening the clinic in Esteli, the students toured area's countryside. Cameron Garner takes a picture of Hannah DeMeritt.

One of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua can be both beautiful and challenging. Many people lack access to basic necessities.

The students had completed months of fundraising and planning for the opportunity to see this developing nation and to help as they could, in partnership with Global Brigades, the world’s largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization.

Since 2004, Global Brigades has mobilized tens of thousands of university students and professionals in skill-based programs that serve Ghana, Honduras, Panama and Nicaragua. The goal: to improve quality of life in under-resourced regions while respecting local culture.

In 2011, Jordan Han came to UW as a student applicant for the PharmD program. While interviewing, he heard about the first Global Brigades team, which had gone to Honduras. In that moment, the former chemistry major knew he wanted to be at the UW. 

Han had lived in Paraguay for three years as a child and the experience left a lasting impression. The chance to return to Central America was deeply personal.

“This was an emotional journey for me,” he recalled.

Don Downing
(Click to enlarge.) Jordan Han treats one of almost 900 patients the team saw in three days -- a Global Brigades record.
UW pharmacy student Jordan Han treats a patient in Nicaragua
Jordan Han treats one of almost 900 patients the team saw in three days.

After a few hours of sleep, the 43 students climbed back into buses to tour geographical and cultural landmarks while adapting to their temporary home. Later that day, they sorted medications that had been purchased through Global Brigades. They worked with local translators to provide basic directions, supervised by pharmacy faculty member Don Downing and physicians and pharmacists from Harborview  Medical Center and Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy. Also along was Downing's wife, a physical therapist.

At the center of the village, they set up clinic in a tin-roofed church whose only light came through windows and doors; there was no electricity. The students and mentors divided into teams: intake, triage, treatment, and pharmacy.

The next three days were a blur. People came from miles around. The students and their mentors had pledged to help whoever showed up. They saw 895 patients – a Global Brigades record. 

The triage area was staffed with a dozen students and translators. They weighed patients, checked blood pressure and glucose levels, and conducted interviews to get basic information for physicians. Patients, once triaged, met with doctors and the physical therapist.

Patients received prescriptions and went to the dispensary, where most of the students were based. Preceptors were on-hand to supervise their work, just like a clinical practice. Students used literary guides they’d brought along to look up dosing and other information while the local pharmacist provided additional counseling.

Han, who describes himself as a “passable Spanish speaker,” worked mainly in triage, even giving up some shifts in other parts of the clinic to remain there.

“I was able to see so many different people and help them out with their concerns,” he said.

Many of the complaints were consistent – stomach aches from intestinal parasites, urinary tract infections, general body aches and back pain.

There were patients who stood out – a woman who couldn’t afford to leave her abusive husband, a disabled young man who had traveled 20 miles for care in a country with little support for disabled people.

“Most patients had some sort of pain,” Han reported, “and almost every patient asked for multivitamins.”