By Wendy Sarubbi | August 11, 2014 3:22 pm

After seeing nearly 600 patients and setting up clinics in four rural sites in the Dominican Republic, 30 medical, nursing, pharmacy and engineering student returned to the U.S. with a renewed sense of service and a deeper understanding of the globe’s healthcare needs.

“I can’t stop talking about it,” said second-year medical student Denise Feradov, who helped organize the trip that included faculty, a NASA engineer, community physicians and a chaplain. “Every single day it was the most unimaginable steep learning curve I’ve ever experienced. I learned how to do physical exams on children, how to do a physical exam on a newborn baby, I learned how to do and how to read EKGs, to do a blood glucose test, how to do urine tests and a pregnancy test.”

The College of Medicine’s fourth medical mission trip was led by Dr. Judy Simms-Cendan director of Global Health and associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology. This year’s trip took on more than the immediate physical health concerns of the residents in the Dominican Republic’s most impoverished villages. For the first time Winter Park chaplain Linda Simmons travelled with the group to offer mental health and spiritual counseling; UF pharmacy students and faculty attended to medications and UCF Engineers Without Boarders assessed sanitation, water quality and infrastructure needs.

Faculty and students said the experience provided invaluable lessons in interprofessional approaches to healthcare.

Bao Lam, a second-year pharmacy student at the University of Florida said he gained a better understanding of healthcare teams and was better able to “make medically sound decisions because of mutual trust. This is the core of interprofessional collaboration.”

UCF fourth-year M.D. student Erin Kane has made previous medical mission trips, but never before with such a large group of specialists. “It was excellent learning from the nursing students as far as triage and taking vitals, and pharmacy with all the medications are absolutely indispensable,” she said. “And with engineering, it was fabulous to come to see their perspective. As we’re focusing on the medical needs of the community, the engineers were showing us how the infrastructure is directly affecting the community’s health.”

One mountain village gets cut off when high waters make the river impassable and vehicles have to traverse the rushing water. Some residents only have electricity for four hours a day. “What was interesting was that the engineers were able to identify the causes of many of the health problem affecting residents, such as contaminated drinking water and limited electricity,” said Dr. Simms-Cendan.

Engineering students, led by NASA construction manager Drew Horn, met with villagers and toured their community’s to address infrastructure and sanitation concerns. Becca Shea, a UCF mechanical engineering student said her team did research before arriving in the Dominican Republic and knew about the poor water quality, flooding and spotty electrical service villagers face. She said the engineers focused on identifying where improvements could be made on roads and the water supply but were sensitive not to impose their own judgments. “You go in and want to fix everything, but it works for them. They embrace their surroundings and work with what they have,” said Shea wants to return next year to help one community plan and build a small bridge.

Medically, many residents suffered from chronic conditions including hypertension and diabetes, but treatment must take into account the country’s poverty and shortages of prescription drugs. This year, faculty and students also saw a huge increase in cases of chikungunya – a mosquito-borne illness that brings symptoms of fever and aches and pains.

In addition, many patients – especially women and children – sought out emotional and spiritual support from Chaplain Simmons. “Some of the counseling was very challenging and was a heavy burden — also for the students — with some family violence that we came to be aware of,” she said. “There were some cases of spousal abuse as well as child-abuse, and there were some patients with rather severe mental illness and some were wrestling with spiritual struggles. So it was very meaningful to sit with them and reflect with them and find how their faith was very strong and help sustain them through hardship.”

Even for someone like Simmons, who has counseled many, the global experience caused her to reflect. “It makes me realize that people everywhere go through some of the same struggles and people there are very brave and courageous and they inspired me to put some of my concerns in perspective. I think it made an impact I’m going to carry with me for a long time.”

Mission participants returned to the states on August 1 and six days later held a reception with supporters of Diebel Legacy Fund at the Central Florida Foundation. The Diebel family established the fund in honor of Dr. Don Diebel, who died in 2002 at a traffic accident scene where he stopped to help victims. The fund provided scholarships to cover travel expenses for many of the students.

At the reception, Dr. Diebel’s brother Pete said his late brother would have supported the mission trip – and likely would have gone with the students if he had the chance.

“We have done the smallest piece by doing the sponsorship,” he said. “The biggest pieces are what the kids are learning out there and what they’re bringing back, and that they’re going to do something with their lives.”

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