Cancun, Mexico, Miami, Florida and Riobamba, Ecuador. Which of these does not belong? They were all destinations of Stony Brook students this spring break, so the answer is they all belong. However, the 11 students who traveled to Ecuador were not looking to end up on MTV’s Spring Break.
Danielle Lyons, a graduate student in the Physician’s Assistant program, worked with Professor Ed Giarrusso, 10 other first year graduate students and Blanca’s House to plan the trip. Students who went spent their days at two military hospitals—one in Guayaquil and the other in Riobamba—hosting a clinic to pre-screen patients for surgeries to fix cleft lip/palate, burns, ob/gyn, thyroid and gallbladder.
“A surgical team is coming in a month,” Lyons said, “so it was our job to [tell potential patients] yes or no for surgery.”
Most of the patients seen did not have basic healthcare, nor the insurance to cover these surgeries. Blanca’s House is a non-profit organization that recruits volunteer healthcare professionals to provide medical treatment to those in need. The organization is based on Long Island; however, its Medical Team Abroad Program organizes trips sending professionals and medical students to areas in need.
When the volunteers from Stony Brook arrived, they hit the ground running. In their first 2 ½ days of work, they screened over 180 patients and 213 in total over the four-day period. The clinic was previously advertised on the radio and television, but the flock of people that wanted to be seen was a bit overwhelming at first.
“We were hopeful to get through them all,” Lyons said. “It’s a catch-22 though because we want to see as many patients as possible, but we’re students so we’re slower. It’s hard because there are so many people and you don’t want to say no.”
According to Lyons, one of the most humbling lessons was seeing the difference between American healthcare and that offered in Ecuador.
“In the U.S. healthcare is seen as more of a service,” she said, “but even if we couldn’t do anything surgically, these people were so happy that we could look into their ears and eyes and tell them that they were O.K.”
On the other hand, language barriers and the objective of the pre-screening process itself caused some frustrations. None of the patients spoke English, but one student and two physician’s assistants on the trip did. Otherwise, Lyons said, students used translators downloaded on their iPods.
The other task faced by students was turning people down. Since the surgical team will only be at the hospital for a fixed amount of time, there is a standard of priority that the students had to follow when deciding who qualified.
“We had a mother and daughter come in and the mom had two strokes [in the past],” Lyons said, “but we couldn’t do anything. They both looked at me when I told them [as if to say] you’re from America—what are you going to do for her?”
This experience opened the hearts of many students to the suffering of the people they saw. In Riobamba, for example, students passed shacks on stilts—meant to be houses—propped up because of the rain. The homes had no windows.
“I have learned so much through working here,” Nick Agvent, one PA student said. “It was a very humbling experience.”
Blanca’s House organizes relations with hospitals and arranges for a place to stay when its volunteers travel abroad, but the entire experience—airfare, housing and food—is paid for by the volunteers. This did not stop the eleven students from working through their spring break in hopes of helping as many Ecuadorians as possible receive the care they needed.