By Wendy Sarubbi | July 23, 2014 1:13 pm

Bags of medicines clog the tiny office used to store, sort and pack hundreds of pounds of supplies bound for a medical mission trip to the Dominican Republic leaving July 25. Medical students count and package bottles of acetaminophen and ibuprofen while others put together personal hygiene bags of shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes – most donated by area businesses.

The students are getting ready for the annual trip led by Dr. Judy Simms-Cendan, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of international experiences for the UCF College of Medicine.

Since 2010, the program has grown from medical school faculty and students to include College of Nursing participants, and this year has expanded to include University of Florida pharmacy students and faculty, as well as UCF Engineers without Borders. The engineering students are led by NASA engineer Drew Horn and will work directly with engineers from the Universidad Católica Nordestana in the Dominican Republic to assess water supply, sanitation and transportation at the impoverished villages the team will visit. Such infrastructure needs have a direct effect on health, and engineers hope to suggest improvements that will support the communities.

For the first time, this trip will also include a chaplain – Linda Simmons, who is joining her physician husband, Dr. David Simmons. Dr. Simms-Cendan invited the couple because she saw the need to address resident’s mental health as well as their physical needs.

“The people of the Dominican Republic are very spiritual and it’s going to be incredibly helpful to have someone able to counsel them on areas of domestic violence and poverty from a spiritual perspective, “said Dr. Simms-Cendan. Cultural taboos prevent many women from discussing sexual abuse and she hopes this will give women and young girls a chance to talk freely in a private and safe setting.

The team of about 40, which includes eight supervising faculty, is making final preparations for the trip with planning meetings, medical Spanish language classes and training on the use of the electronic health record system medical school students created to better track care and health outcomes.

Rising second year student Faith Villanueva is one of trip’s organizers and believes the learning experience will make a big impact on all her classmates and is grateful for the support they have received. Twenty of the medical students received $500 scholarships from the International Medical Samaritans Program Scholarship funded by Diebel Legacy Fund at the Central Florida Foundation to help cover travel lodging and meals.

“This scholarship is incredibly meaningful to me because it gave us the flexibility to offer highly qualified students an international service opportunity that might otherwise be out of reach,” Villanueva said.

With this year’s large group, coordination and clinic flow is going to be key to seeing hundreds of patients in a limited amount of time. Five returning fourth-year students including Teresa Martin-Carreras and Heather McKently will help facilitate the clinics and are eager to help mentor the group and pass on their cultural and clinical knowledge.

During the weeklong trip, the team expects to see more than 900 patients and will travel to the same six villages they visited in previous years in some of the poorest rural areas near San Francisco de Macoris. Dr. Simms-Cendan sees the trip as a vital part of interprofessional training for the soon-to-be doctors. “ I want students to connect with the people on a personal and cultural level and be able to adapt to their surroundings, and they get to set up an entire clinic and work as a team,” she said.

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