Medical students help impoverished in Nicaragua

Michelle Ma

A burned foot couldn’t take away her smile.

After stepping in a hot pan of oil, a young Nicaraguan girl hopped on her healthy foot to a health clinic in Matagalpa, Nicaragua to receive treatment for her burns.

“She was a tough little girl,” said NU-Aid member Kevin Gobeske, a first-year medical student at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “She stood there and took it — she was very brave.”

Gobeske, along with more than 50 Feinberg medical students and about 12 physicians, travel to impoverished Latin American countries to provide medical care for patients as a part of Northwestern University Alliance for International Development, a student-run organization.

NU-Aid was started in 1999 by Feinberg students after an earthquake in Nicaragua left many people without basic forms of medical care.

“A lot of the medical school community doesn’t get to see (this) cross-section of the population,” said Katie Chell, last year’s president and a second-year Feinberg student. “It’s important to have an aspect of cultural competency while in medical school.”

‘lines around the block’

Since its initial trip to Matagalpa, Nicaragua, NU-Aid has expanded, now serving four communities in three different countries. But the group mainly focuses on two sites in Nicaragua.

“We don’t want to spread ourselves too thin,” Gobeske said. “We want to really focus and improve the communities we are currently working with to solidify them.”

NU-Aid sets up temporary clinics in Matagalpa twice each year and in its other Nicaraguan site, Jinotega, once a year.

At each site, volunteer medical students and physicians bring supplies to serve patients, typically treating 600 to 800 people on each trip, said Greg Brisson, a physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and assistant professor of internal medicine at Feinberg.

“We started clinic on Monday at 8 a.m., and already there would be lines around the block,” said Johanna Gabela, president of NU-Aid and a first-year Feinberg student.

The students refused to leave until every patient had been seen, sometimes spending 12 hours on the job, she said.

NU-Aid also cared for healthy patients by performing medical check-ups on healthy children.

“It was rewarding to do well-kid examinations and be able to tell the mother that she’s doing a great job with her kids,” Chell said.

practice and prevention

Originally from Nicaragua, Sofia Taboada, community liaison for the group and a first-year Feinberg student, said she was stunned by the grim state of health care outside of Nicaraguan urban areas.

“I knew disparity existed, but I hadn’t put a face to it before I went there,” she said. “We take things for granted here, like homeless shelters and food shelves. They don’t have those for the less fortunate here in Nicaragua.”

Last winter, Taboada worked on the Matagalpa team that made an unexpected visit to the local prison to provide care for inmates. Taboada said the situation was especially sad because inmates couldn’t feasibly practice basic preventative healthcare such as exercise and proper diet.

“(The prisoners) are very sick because many conditions are all compounded to affect their lives,” she said. “They tend to be glanced over by society.”

Most of the problems patients face are unlike those that afflict many Americans. While diseases that depend on behavior, age and lifestyle affect most Americans, Nicaraguan patients deal with “simple” conditions that most residents of underdeveloped areas aren’t aware of because they lack knowledge of necessary hygiene, Brisson said.

For this reason, NU-Aid also teaches patients preventative health care. While they wait in line, health care educators instruct patients to boil their water and practice good hygiene.

“If we can talk with each patient for three minutes and each implements a little public health, it will help a whole population of patients overall,” said Rosemary Moleski, a second-year Feinberg student who went to Matagalpa last winter.

‘involving, enveloping work’

NU-Aid is the only student-run organization of its kind at a university in the United States, Gabela said. Members gather donations themselves.

Because NU-Aid only receives a small yearly allocation from Feinberg’s Student Senate and some contributions from Feinberg’s development office, 90-95 percent of funding must come from student enterprise, Gabela said.

“Members become very creative with how to get supplies donated because it’s their organization,” Gabela said. “This is our initiative. We get experience to see what it’s like to provide care to people directly.”

In order to raise money for upcoming trips, NU-Aid is holding a semi-formal fund-raising event at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum on May 30, Gabela said.

“It is such a tribute to their commitment that they make these things happen,” said Brisson, adding that a strenuous course load makes it even harder for members to find extra time to devote to the organization.

NU-Aid will travel for a second time to Abelines, El Salvador this summer.

Funding issues did not dampen the moods of most NU-Aid members. Most members plan to stay with the organization as long as they can and use their experiences in their careers.

“Patients remind you of why you’re (there),” Gobeske said. “We worked very hard. It was such involving, enveloping work, but time flies.”