Imagine a completely isolated place where crime levels are at an all-time high, where clean running water and basic utilities are a luxury to a select few, where the nearest medical clinic is located a day away by foot. This is the type of territory that few of us would voluntarily set foot in, especially if we were asked to do so during summer vacation. But this kind of place was exactly where several of our own student pharmacists journeyed to this past summer. While the rest of us were lazing around and enjoying our summer vacations, six brothers (Sam Abid ’16, Amanda Chan ’16, Lawrence Chang ’16, George Do ’16, Tina Kwan ’16, and Vickie Nguyen ’16) of the Rho Pi Phi professional pharmaceutical fraternity journeyed to Santa Cruz, Honduras for an annual Global Brigades mission trip. During the week of August 6-13, these six student pharmacists, along with 36 other volunteers, traveled to a remote, rural Honduras community in order to provide basic services to the residents there.
The overall purpose of Global Brigades, the organization that facilitated the trip, is to holistically improve a rural community by providing them with support in all aspects, such as medical (dental, pharmaceutical, and gynecological services), architectural, and financial. Basic utilities such as easy access to clean drinking water were also arranged. Santa Cruz, the Honduras community that the volunteers were stationed at, had only a single clinic that was located a day’s walk away. Global Brigades is the community’s only source of healthcare, but the residents only receive a visit from them every three to six months so the services that the students provided to them were greatly needed and appreciated. Abid said that it was an eye opener to see “how much we take things for granted when there are people around the world who don’t have access to basic necessities such as healthcare or water. These people were in desperate need of help and were so grateful that we were trying to help them.”
But even before heading out to Honduras, the road leading up to the trip itself was one that was paved full of obstacles. The initial preparation stage posed its own set of challenges—plenty of fundraising had to be done in order to raise the necessary funds for the trip. Many of the medical supplies that were brought to Honduras were contributions from generous donors, but anything that could not be obtained through donations had to be purchased. Since Rho Pi Phi was not able to hold enough fundraisers to raise the funds needed, a lot of the money that was used to buy the supplies had to come out of the students’ own pockets. This financial burden made it difficult for the students to get everything that they needed for the trip. “That was one of my biggest regrets for the trip,” Kwan said. “We saw how little the residents of Honduras had so I wish we were able to bring more supplies to them, especially since we ran out of a lot of the medications.”
Fast-forward to the date of Wednesday, August 6, 2014—the week of the trip had finally arrived. After spending the first day settling in and getting to know the other volunteers, the students were then immediately thrust into a busy second day of preparing medication for the rest of the week. Supplies were organized, pills were counted, and medicines were sorted into individual packages. As student pharmacists, the knowledge and skills that were gained during their time in pharmacy school greatly helped them in their situation. According to Chan, her familiarity with drug names and functions was able to help her “quickly identify where the drugs are located and what the drugs were used for.” She said that the work she did was also a learning experience in itself since “the medications were in Spanish, so some of the medications varied from the ones we saw here in the states.”
The next three days of the trip were medical clinic days that allowed student volunteers to directly interact with the patients. Clinic days included triage, where patients would see a board of students and translators and tell them about any symptoms or ailments they had before they were referred to either a doctor or dentist. Students also asked the patients a series of questions (height, weight, blood pressure, family medical history, etc.) in order to obtain and record general background information. Children’s charla—where volunteers taught children the importance of maintaining oral hygiene by providing free toothbrushes and toothpaste and by teaching them a song to more easily help them remember how to brush, as well as adult charla, where patients were taught basic hygiene habits, were also a part of clinic days. Numerous patients walked for miles and lined up for hours just for these medical services and Chang said that when he found out that “in just three days of clinic, we managed to serve 1,046 patients with just 42 students, it was actually quite humbling to know that a small group like us could make such a great impact on a huge community.”
Having accessible, clean water on a daily basis is one thing that none of us had ever had to worry about before. However, to the people of Honduras, this is a luxury that few could afford. Due to the natural rough terrain of Honduras and its lack of paved roads, approximately 40 percent of Hondurans live without having access to clean drinking water. This is why the fifth and last day of service was dedicated to Water Brigades. During this day, the volunteers traveled to a different rural community to help build a water filtration system for the residents there. The lack of clean water throughout the year meant that the community residents had to resort to drinking from unsafe or infested water sources—patients that came in during the clinic days had to be prescribed precautionary parasite medicine in order to combat this. Nguyen said that when she learned that people had to walk for 30 minutes just to reach water and that they had to carry the large jugs home, “it broke my heart because these people had so little and they had to work so hard for something that I sometimes took for granted.” She said that this experience made her “really appreciate the simple things in life” and realized that “as a future pharmacist, I will have the ability to help so many people, not only in my immediate community, but all over the world as well.”
Like most others, Abid said that he originally went on this trip in order to travel somewhere and to try something new, but when he saw how kind and grateful the people acted toward the volunteers for their services, it helped “reaffirm that I chose the right field of study and that the patients should always be the first in my mind.” He recounted that one of his most memorable experiences during the trip was one that occurred when the student volunteers were playing with the children in the orphanage during one of the non-clinic days. According to Abid, one of the volunteers had a camera and was taking pictures of the children to give to them as a gift. After a little boy had his picture taken, he immediately gave the picture to Abid, calling him, “mi amigo” or ‘my friend’ in Spanish. When Abid asked him if he wanted to keep it, the boy replied in Spanish, “I want you to keep it to remember me.” Abid said that “this small act of kindness really stood out to me and showed me that even from someone who doesn’t have much, they are willing to give something away to a complete stranger.”
Kwan agreed with her fellow volunteers when she described the entire trip as a “truly humbling experience.” During the course of the trip, she had the opportunity to look inside the house of one of the community’s residents. Kwan described the house as “a bare, extremely small place with dirt floor and a sheet-metal roof blackened from poor air circulation” and that the “single bedroom where six people were living together only contained two small twin beds.” Kwan felt as though it was a whole other world out there. “People there were living on nothing,” she said. “For a whole week after I came back, it was hard for me to adjust back because it felt like I was living in excess. It made me realize just how much we had compared to them and I wondered what I did to deserve such a luxurious life.”
We often hear people say that we take things for granted, but we don’t come to the actual realization until we are able to witness it firsthand and see the jarring contrast for ourselves. “Seeing the area where some people live and how little they had made me a lot more appreciative of what I had,” Do said. “It really gave me perspective of how much we have and how little they have,” Chan said. “When I am a pharmacist, I want to volunteer myself to missions like these and provide medical care to the under-served. I want to be able to use my knowledge and passion for pharmacy to help those in need.”
Rho Pi Phi participates in the Honduras Global Brigades trip annually. If you wish to partake in an eye-opening experience that will change your worldviews, consider volunteering next year. Or, if you wish, you can choose to start out small with things like donations to fund this trip. It might not seem like much now, but it’s important to remember that it’s the little things we do that help make the biggest difference.