By: Kim Nguyen
As I entered the sky bridge, walking towards the plane, it finally occurred to me what I was about to embark on. In all honesty, I had no idea what to expect. Sure, I had seen the itinerary and talked to veteran brigaders, but schedules and words do not compare to the actual experience. My brigade trip to Nicaragua was incredible from beginning to end and I am very fortunate to have been able to contribute to the Global Brigades cause.
Our schedule consisted of 3 medical clinic days, 2 public health days, and one water day with the first and last days as travel days. The medical days were the most rewarding ones by far; we were able to see and treat 654 patients from villages around La Garnacha. Men, women, and children traveled tens to hundreds of kilometers by car and foot to see us. Each day we were able to work in two different stations; I was able to work in triage, doctor consult, pharmacy, and charla. Triage is the station that entails the most interaction with the patients; not only are we recording their medical history, but we are communicating with them in Spanish. Before for the brigade, I was tentative on my ability to speak Spanish in a comprehensible manner, but as I saw more patients, the words (although they were repetitive) gradually came to me more fluently. I was also able to take blood pressure for the incoming patients. Taking blood pressure was my favorite job to do during the medical days; despite how cramped my hand was after squeezing the inflation bulb for 3 hours. In doctor consultation I shadowed Dr. Ana, who was fluent in Spanish as well as English. She was able to explain to me the patients’ symptoms, their diagnosis, and why she would prescribe certain drugs. During my time with her I was able to watch her perform a pap smear; the procedure was intriguing because I had never seen one done before, but I honestly would be content with never seeing one done again. Pharmacy was pretty straightforward, we filled the prescriptions and gave patients instructions on use of the medication. In charla we educated the children on proper brushing and flossing technique and we provided fluoride treatments. The kids really enjoyed following along with their own toothbrushes and floss, or maybe they participated for the sticker incentive. Overall the clinic days were where I felt my contributions were readily appreciated and helpful and that was greatly rewarding.
The public health branch of Global Brigades involves building sanitary stations and concrete flooring for houses in participating villages. Most houses in these remote villages do not have a formal bathroom; villagers would use outhouses will a hole in the ground as toilets and bathe with collected rainwater outside. The purpose of the sanitary station is to provide a private area with running water for these needs. The station consisted of a shower, toilet, sink, and a septic tank. As volunteers, we laid the cinder blocks and cement that would form the outside structure and septic tank. Concrete flooring is also a vital aspect of public health; most houses in these villages have dirt floors. Dirt floors are not sanitary because bugs that can carry disease and harmful bacteria can crawl into the homes where the adults and children do not wear shoes to protect their feet. With concrete floors, the villagers are safer in their own homes. To build the floors, we would mix the cement with rocks, dirt, cement mix, and water; then the cement was shoveled into buckets and carried uphill to the house where it was leveled onto the floor. Over a span of two days, we were able to finish two sanitary stations and one concrete floor.
Our water day was canceled due to flooding in the area, but the water program is meant to provide a source of clean, uncontaminated water for the village. The water from rivers and streams is often contaminated with bacteria and parasites that lead to prolonged illnesses that, if not treated immediately, will have dire effects. By installing a pipe system that pumps clean water from underground, the villagers will have an alternate source of water that they can trust is clean.
From this trip, I was able to learn medical skills that I had little knowledge of before. I was also able to immerse myself in a culture that was completely different from my own and gain the new perspective of medicine in a developing country. Volunteering with Global Brigades was one of the best decisions I have made. Global Brigades is not just another program that goes in with good intentions and then leaves without following up on their work. The overarching concept of the Global Brigades holistic program is sustainability. Volunteers come in every 3 months not only to provide the resources and labor, but also the education required for the villagers to maintain their work after the volunteers, and eventually Global Brigades, have left. The main goal of the Global Brigades program is to come into a community and provide all the help that they can with their 9 programs (medical, dental, public health, water, microfinance, business, environmental, human rights, and engineering) and then eventually phase out once the community is able to proficiently manage itself.