Guest Blogger: A Medical Mission to Panama

by Mary Martialay on February 25, 2014

Rensselaer medical bridagers learn to take patient vitals

(Rensselaer senior Lynnette Lacek and junior Colleen Lamberson, co-presidents of university’s chapter of the Global Medical Brigades, wrote this guest post about their recent work in Panama.)

In January, Rensselaer’s chapter of Global Medical Brigades traveled to the Darien Province in Panama to provide medical care to the indigenous Embera and Wounaan tribes. It was an amazing opportunity – for three days our small group of 21 students functioned as a mobile medical unit. We set up a small clinic in the local community center, and with the help of two doctors, one dentist, and one pharmacist, we were able to diagnose and treat 373 patients.

Just getting to the remote home of the Embera and Wounaan tribes is an adventure. Rensselaer’s medical brigade team traveled about four hours by van, sometimes on bumpy dirt roads, to arrive in the Airmae community. Rensselaer brigaders working at the mobile pharmacy

Our first day in-country was spent prepping for the medical clinic; we sorted and labeled the tremendous amounts of medications that we were able to purchase as a result of fundraising efforts. With the pharmacist’s help, we wrote clear and concise instructions in Spanish on the medications to be prescribed.

During the clinic, we found that our patients suffered from a broad variety of illnesses, however, we found that many suffered from common gastrointestinal and dermatological problems. We learned in our training that these diseases stemmed from unsanitary daily health practices, which are the direct consequences of a lack of health education. Therefore, a major part of our mission was education, which we included in portions of the brigade termed the “charla,” which is Spanish for “chat.” We learned enough Spanish to teach young children to brush their teeth, communicating mostly through song. And we gave educational materials to a community leader for distribution to community members.

On the second day of our clinic, we were witness to a tragedy: a three-month old Embera baby died of bronchitis. For the volunteers, this brought home first-hand the devastation that even a treatable disease can cause, and it made us more fully aware of the necessity of our work. With proper access to medical care, the baby would not have died. We are humbled to know that the Global Medical Brigades clinics, greatly supported by student work and motivation, are truly making a life and death difference in the communities they serve. Not only do we provide medical care where it is absent, but we also teach necessary health practices to help the local people sustain a healthy community on their own.

Following the medical clinic, we had planned a “Cultural Day” to experience the culture of the community we had been working in. The cultural day was a rewarding and eye-opening experience. The women of the Embera and Wounaan tribes welcomed us into their homes and explained their way of life. They performed a dance, inviting us to participate, and shared crafts and jewelry with us. Getting to know the community we worked in was the perfect way to end our experience. Despite the language barrier, the day was filled with an understanding of gratitude and happiness between the Embera and Wounaan tribes and Rensselaer’s medical brigaders.

The impact that this trip had on us is difficult to describe in words. We were able to learn about what it means to be a health care provider, a profession many of us aspire to. Through the community, we were able to experience what it is like to not have access to medical care and the dire consequences that follow. We were able to experience what life is like without clean water, showers, and bathroom facilities. A humbling experience at its least, there is no doubt that Global Medical Brigades leaves a lasting impression on both the community it supports and the students who served.

Rensselaer’s chapter of Global Medical Brigades

Rensselaer’s chapter of Global Medical Brigades on the last clinic day in Arimae, Panama, along with Panamanian doctors, dentist, pharmacist, and children of the Arimae community.