A group of Bellin College nursing students, faculty members, and local health care providers recently returned from a medical mission 3,000 miles away. They traveled to Central America to bring care and compassion to hundreds of people living in poverty.
The 13 students spent hours of classroom time preparing for the challenges they would face in Guatemala, but they say seeing the sickness and squalor first-hand was shocking. They treated patients suffering from malnutrition, infections from parasites, burn injuries, and so much more.
"It can be heartbreaking," explains Assistant Professor Lynn Murphy. "They see poverty here in the United States, but this is at a totally different level."
The first stop of their nine day health care mission was Guatemala's only publicly run children's hospital. "There's mold on the walls. We had people that were fixing the roof above us, and they were walking over, and we could see the sunlight coming through," explained senior nursing student Maria Pirkola.
Pirkola and her classmates treated patients and, surprisingly, had to teach the hospital staff and ambulance drivers how to perform lifesaving CPR.
From there, the group traveled to the Puerto Barrios dump where 300 people live. They survive off recycling garbage. It was the hardest part of the trip for Andrea O'Bright who spent hours removing lice.
"It was incredible just how full their hair was and how much we had to pick out," she explains. "It's going to keep spreading, so it really turned into more of a comfort thing for them where we were braiding the little girls' hair and putting ribbons in it."
The next challenge came when flooded roads forced the group to take boats to the next two villages. They had to carry hundreds of pounds of medical supplies through the ocean, up cliffs, and deep into the jungle.
"Oh, they did an amazing job. Nobody complained. Nobody was like, 'Oh my gosh. I can't believe I have to do this,'" Murphy explained.
Villagers waited in long lines at the clinic they set up under tents. Pirkola witnessed the damage done to children who drink soda to avoid getting sick from water contamination.
"I've never seen cavities like I've seen there. Children have black teeth, whether permanent teeth or baby teeth still. They have holes in their mouths."
Their final stop was an abandoned teak wood farm where patients walked over an hour for medical care.
During the entire trip, the group treated 500 patients.
"We found ourselves very exhausted at the end of the day," said Murphy.
"We learned what it means to be humble," added Pirkola.
The care they provided went beyond treating just physical ailments. The Bellin College team delivered water filters, shoes, toys, and even a donated My Team Triumph wheelchair to an 18-year-old named Melvin. He has cerebral palsy and has been bedridden his entire life.
Murphy says with tears in her eyes, "Just to see him actually out of his home for the first time, that was incredible."
The students say this emotional mission to help the underserved reaffirms their decision to pursue their passion and goal of becoming a nurse.
O'Bright says, "To let them know somebody cares, that is just all that I could even want in life."
"Just showing people your love and affection is huge," added Pirkola.
The students say they'll use what they learned in Guatemala back here in Northeast Wisconsin where patients also have issues with language barriers, transportation, nutrition, and access to food and health care.