Texas Tech students travel to Panama to help with Global Medical Brigades initiative.
More than a dozen Texas Tech University students packed a lifetime of memories into one summer week when they visited Panama as volunteers with the Global Medical Brigades.
“We helped with medical care for people in several underserved communities outside of Panama City,” said Noah Wong, a junior general studies major from Plano. “We helped set up these pop-up clinics in rural areas where people could receive medical consultations and other information.”
Global Medical Brigades give students interested in a health care career the chance to gain practical experience in the setting of a medical clinic. Overall, 17 Texas Tech students took part in the Panama trip, which lasted just more than a week. The bulk of the team's work took place over a four-day span with some 200 patients seen daily.
“This was my second brigade,” said Chad Thornton, a microbiology major from Farmington, New Mexico. “Last year, we went to Honduras, and so this was a similar experience, and it was just as amazing. But it was also a lot of work and was very fulfilling.”
Both Wong and Thornton plan to be physicians. Meanwhile a third student on the trip, Kendalyn Kosechata, a sophomore biochemistry major from Amarillo, has plans to become a dentist.
All three said the opportunity was rewarding on a number of levels, from giving them a window into their future careers to learning about a different culture. Most important, the Global Medical Brigades experience opens up educational vistas far different from yet complementary to those found on a college campus.
“An experience such as this can be life-changing for our students,” said Tosha Dupras, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “For some, this may be the first time they have left the country or even the state, and they return with new skills and global perspectives that will serve them in whatever career path they choose. These are experiences that cannot necessarily be gained in the classroom.”
Texas Tech is one of 466 college campuses home to a Global Medical Brigades chapter. Overall, more than 90,000 volunteers have participated in the organization's mission since 2004, resulting in more than 1.4 million patient consultations. The Texas Tech team was joined by students from Tufts University for the Panama trip with recruiting and outreach efforts beginning early in the spring semester.
“It was an amazing experience to immerse ourselves into the communities,” said Kosechata. “For me, I didn't really understand everything about how it was in Panama, and to actually see the poverty was kind of culture shock for me.
“But being able to understand how people live and were still so happy and loving was incredible. Their responses to us were so heartwarming. They would bring you a mango and say it was a gift to us. I would have never thought giving a mango to someone could be so special.”
For Thornton, last year's brigade trip took him to Honduras, so he had a good idea of what to expect. The day typically began at 6 a.m. with a quick breakfast followed by a two-hour bus ride. Once there, the students worked as support staff for doctors and other volunteer medical professionals on site.
“We were helping the doctors,” Thornton said. “There were Global Medical Brigade resources and local Panamanian doctors who come in, and we're there to assist them any way we can from carrying boxes around to making sure they are having an easy time taking care of people.”
Wong explained that his time in Panama affirmed his career aspirations. The chance to help care for people – in a small yet important way – was time well spent.
“We want to go into the health care field, which is why we go on a trip like this,” he said. “But then seeing people and having hands-on patient interaction that we were able to have reignited a lot of our passions because being students right now, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture of why we want to go into health care.
“This experience where we were able to make such a large impact in just a week's time allowed us to see people come into these clinics and leave healthier and happier. They would be able to live longer, better lives and that's the ultimate mission of all we do.”
Thornton saw the Global Medical Brigades trip from several viewpoints. It was not only educational, but also inspirational in terms of visiting another country where he would be unfamiliar with language, culture and customs.
“Part of it was simply the adventure,” he said. “It was fun, and it was a great opportunity to go to a different country and practice something that I want to do for the rest of my life, so it was pretty much a win-win situation. It was well worth it because you can get lost in the weeks of writing essays and taking exams and the things you have to do in school.”
Kosechata felt like the trip gave her a chance to put some of the values of her Christian faith in action in terms of serving others.
“I saw this as an opportunity to help people in a less fortunate community while exploring my general field of study,” she said. “In the dental field, there aren't as many opportunities like this as for medical, but the dentist we had down there was amazing. I spent a lot of my time in the dental room. We saw a lot of young kids.
“That has me wanting to go into pediatrics. It was an amazing way to see how I could work with children in the future. It was like I saw it done, and now I know how to weave my way through it whenever I'm older.”
A Global Medical Brigades experience can give students clarity around their career goals in a low-risk environment. At the very least, they walk away from any trip with a more worldly perspective and greater appreciation for other people and cultures.
“I wanted to experience a new country and immerse myself in that,” Wong said. “But I also found out with just one patient interaction that this was something I want to do for the rest of my life. I don't just mean medicine, but also medical mission trips after I am practicing or even after I retire.”
At Texas Tech, a lot of hard work has gone into rebuilding the Global Medical Brigades chapter in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic that first closed borders and then made international travel an often-challenging undertaking at best.
“COVID really decimated everything,” Thornton said. “There was a point there where you couldn't travel, so you couldn't have a medical brigade, so you couldn't really have an organization. We've been building this up from scratch since then.”
Global Medical Brigades is an international organization with teams sent primarily to five countries: Honduras, Ghana, Panama, Greece and Guatemala. Once in country, team members travel to sites and set up clinics, which feature areas dedicated to intake, triage and consultation. The layout is effective for patients, most of whom travel hours to be seen, and allows them be treated as effectively as possible.
“We go to areas where there is a lot of poverty, not a lot of hospitals or access to medical care,” Thornton said. “We're there for a week, and someone might ask, ‘How much can you really do in a week?' The answer is not too much, but the cool thing about the Medical Brigades is every week, there's a different college chapter going there.”
The approach amplifies the brigades' impact and ensures people have access to care. Likewise, it's not just medical brigades who visit these communities. There are also water brigades, engineering brigades and financial brigades.
“The emphasis is on building a community from the ground up,” Wong said. “If we are the only medical people they see, they will continue to rely on us to keep coming. But if we start from a place of building up the community, then business projects will follow, and engineering brigades will build houses and they eventually become self-sustaining.”
All in all, the students walked away with an unforgettable collection of memories.
“It's meaningful to have books and to study,” Wong said. “But to actually put your boots on the ground and go do it is what I'm talking about. “
Kosechata agreed, saying few things are more meaningful than building personal relationships.
“I wanted to see with my own eyes how God was bringing people from here to help people there,” she said. “I saw one ad for the Global Medical Brigades, and I was like, ‘I have to do that.' I felt so ready to do it, and it was so great.”
All three of them also left Panama changed in some way, gaining an even greater appreciation for everything they have in the United States.
“It's easy to take air conditioning for granted or having a hot shower in the morning,” Thornton said. “It's easy to lose sight of how important and how great those things are. We went to Panama, and we didn't have those things, and I was thinking, ‘Wow, we are really, really, really fortunate in the United States.”
Now, with the pandemic in the rear-view mirror and a successful trip behind them, the local chapter hopes to see more students take advantage of the opportunity in the future.
“This isn't just a one-year, one-time deal,” Wong said. “We want to see this program take place every single year at Texas Tech so we can inspire students to go on these trips and help them be the best medical professionals they can be in the future.”
Other Texas Tech students to participate were Mateo Tetatzin, Betty-Aurore Koffi, Cathlyn Collins, Elizabeth Quiroz, Patrick Pham, Abigail Mammen, Katie Meinke, Cierra Alba, Quiana Diaz, Bertha Sagreiros, Megan George, Bella Jones, Jaleen Marquez and Genesis Garcia.