Just days before leaving on his first volunteer trip to Honduras, UC Santa Cruz senior Daniel Truong was “scared to death, but very excited.” As one of two founders of the UCSC branch of Global Medical Brigades (GMB), Truong had spent the better part of his school year recruiting students, fundraising, collecting donated medicines and cutting through red tape in preparation to lead 20 student volunteers to the Latin American country.
IN THE DENTIST’S CHAIR A UCSC brigader attempts to pacify a young Honduran girl before cleaning her teeth.
GMB is responsible for sending more than 1,000 volunteers to Honduras each year, where they run free health clinics in underserved villages. As a newly formed branch, UCSC’s week-long trip to Honduras was to be the club’s first brigade– and there was plenty for Truong and co-leader Ida Shahidi to worry about. They were unsuccessful in finding a doctor to accompany them, and were unsure about which medicines they’d need to bring the most of. Many of the 20 students in the group were not well acquainted, and meetings thus far had proved unsuccessful to bond them. But when Truong caught up with GT soon after returning from the trip, he was all smiles—not even the students’ narrow escape from the action surrounding the country’s military coup could spoil his high.
“It was amazing, this trip changed my life,” he says, adding that the group became an honorary family through the experience.
They stayed in Nuevo Paraiso, waking up at 6:30 a.m. each morning (no easy feat for college students, although they report having no problems waking up because “everyone was so excited”) and traveling an hour or two to the village they were serving that day. On arrival, they set up shop in a local school or community compound that had been designated for the clinic. “There was a line waiting for us when we got there,” says Truong. “People walked for hours just to get Tylenol and vitamins.”
The group, which was paired with the seasoned University of Virginia GMB club, helped three to 400 people a day. The most common medicines they handed out were Ibuprofen, fungicides, children’s cold and flu medicines, vitamins and parasitic treatments – the last two of which every patient received.
However, to the surprise of the UCSC newbies, the clinic’s dental care was needed much more than the medical treatments. Truong, who shadowed the volunteer dentist during the trip and assisted in extracting teeth, says they pulled around 100 teeth a day.
A few days after returning from Honduras, a handful of the brigaders are gathered around a café table, sipping iced teas and coffees in the warm summer sun, and reminiscing about their adventure—speaking over one another with funny stories about language miscommunications and fond memories of children they met while working. Robin Martin, a senior psychology major, also worked at the dental station, where she cleaned teeth and dentures, and gave fluoride and prophylactic treatments. Aside from having to do “a lot of miming,” and some language faux pas (the dentists were mistakenly telling their patients “don’t escape” rather than “don’t spit”), Martin feels the dental station was able to make a positive impact on the communities.
“I’d never seen tooth decay before I went to Honduras,” she says. “There were kids with baby teeth that were turning black. Some of them had never seen a toothbrush before.” Each person received a package with a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap – all the necessities for basic hygiene, something the brigade volunteers were shocked to learn most of the locals knew very little about.
In addition to providing basic health education at the clinic (like how to brush teeth and keep water sanitary), some members went out into the villages on public health missions. “They don’t have a sanitary sewage system; they just dig a hole to go to the bathroom,” says Shahidi. “And with their stoves, they don’t have a chimney, so the smoke goes in the house.” Megan Wiegelman and Alysha Pascua took a day off from doling out medicines and scrubbing teeth to help out in a local home, where four family members were living in one room. They built the family a latrine and a stove.
“I really enjoyed doing the public health thing [because] you really got to know the family you were doing it for, and you could feel the effort—you were literally carrying buckets of dirt and gravel around all day,” says Wiegelman. “[The family] was really appreciative.”
The group also took a day to visit an orphanage, where they handed out candy and played soccer with the kids (and happily lost, five to one, despite having three members of the UCSC soccer team on their side). “As corny as it sounds, everyone had a life-changing experience,” says Martin of the trip as a whole.
Still buzzing with excitement from the experience, the GMB Slugs are already planning next year’s trip, for which they plan to gather more troops, including a volunteer doctor and dentist, fundraise more and garner more donated medicines. But despite not being entirely prepared this time around, Truong feels the trip went off perfectly thanks to the dedication of the volunteers. “I think a lot of people didn’t know what their potential was until they were put to it,” he says. “Everyone did a bomb job.”