Courtesy/ James Thai
Picture spending part of your summer working in the sweltering heat with 50 colleagues to provide healthcare to the underserved communities. Imagine holding a child in your arms who has never seen the doctor before and has travelled a great deal with his family for a simple checkup. Or comforting a child coming face-to-face with her greatest fear for the first time –– needles.
While some might envision community service as a straightforward drive to the local soup kitchen to volunteer or a thoughtful donation to a noble charity, the members of St. John’s medical chapter of Global Brigades define community service on an international platform.
This summer, on a seven day service trip in June, Global Brigades members provided medical services for young children in the mountains of Piedras Gordas, Cocle, Panama, in true Vincentian spirit.
The members of SJU Global Brigade have a plethora of inspiring and emotive moments with the Panamanian locals. First-time member Erna Radoncic, a third year Pharmacy student, described her first Brigade trip to Panama as “inspiring.”
“[The trip] really just puts things in perspective because we’re from the states where everything is basically given to us … we’re so blessed to be where we are,” Radoncic said.
It takes the entire school year to be able to plan this trip. Beginning in September, applications for the summer program roll out and interviews are held later that month. The rest of the year is focused on raising money to supply the medications, eyeglasses and other equipment for the clinics. The club hosts smoothie sales throughout the year as well as a gala during the spring semester to raise money.
These trips are usually for seven days, two of those days include travel. Members will spend three days at the clinic and 2 days providing Public Health services to the community.
“To be a part of the process of empowering a community is priceless. We aren’t just donating supplies and money, we are also donating our time and energy as well,” James Thai, 2019 graduate and former Vice President of SJU Global Brigades, said.
“Global Brigades is one of the few organizations that allows students to be proactive in the fight against poverty around the world.”
The crew of approximately 50 volunteers visited Pierdas Gordas to work alongside local and volunteer doctors in a school-turned-clinic, to provide free healthcare –– including eye evaluations, checking blood pressure, pap smears and dental procedures. They also helped build water systems/latrines for the rural community.
From June 15 to June 21, SJU Global Brigade worked about 8 hours a day –– with a long commute to and from the lodging facility –– and learned a great deal about themselves and the local culture.
“It’s so interesting how two different countries have such amazing connections … I remember there was this one family that talked to me about how they traveled from the top of the mountain to see a doctor.” Christine Arago said. Arago, a third year Biology and Theology double major, is the current Treasurer of SJU Global Brigades.
“Piedras Gordas is filled with beautiful people who value family and their culture so deeply,” Arago continued. “I’m so glad I get this opportunity every year because it gives me the strength and motivation to carry on.”
The club has been growing exponentially the past few years, such that the E-board had to plan a second trip this summer to the Central Region of Ghana to accommodate all the qualified volunteers.
Kate Sheldon, a fifth year pharmacy student, travelled to Ghana for the first time this summer to provide free healthcare to the community with her counterparts.
“One moment that stood out to me [in Ghana] was when we were gathered as a group and learned the mission of the brigade,” Sheldon said. “We spoke of the ways that we can empower the community … seeing the passion in all of my fellow brigaders was one of the most heartwarming moments.”
This club is a great opportunity for pre-medical students to explore their future field in a more hands-on experience than what is offered in the United States. This summer, students got the chance to work directly with doctors, to take patient histories, to interact with patients, and most importantly, to make a difference in someone’s life.
Whether it be a child afraid of seeing the dentist, or an elderly man getting his first pair of glasses, being there with the patient to witness and share in their every sentiment is what matters to these students.
“I truly believe to be an amazing physician in the future is to have the passion, kindness, and the ability to touch lives through little things,” said Arago.
Although the brigades take place in a medical setting, SJU Global Brigades is a diverse organization of members from across all majors, from economics to TV and Film. All students who are “willing to serve in a very humble setting,” as Arago phrased it, are welcome to join the chapter’s mission of supplying towns the resources needed to become sustainable.
“A simple gesture can go a long way and it can really make a difference,” Thai said.