Making the impossible, possible: Bringing care to Bolivian village
The paradox of life is the more you give, the more you receive. An interprofessional health care team of faculty and students from the Texas A&M colleges of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy learned this first-hand in May through a medical mission trip to Bolivia. The team staffed a clinic to assess, diagnose and treat patients living in and around the remote Andean village of Quesimpuco.
“The clinic was built by Servants in Faith and Technology (SIFAT) and has been there for more than 20 years,” said Whitney Landman, MSN, RN, lecturer at Texas A&M College of Nursing. “Groups of health care providers from various organizations volunteer to travel to Quesimpuco to staff the clinic or help with other projects that can improve the health or living conditions of the people in the area.”
Life in Quesimpuco
The Aggies’ 22-hour trip from College Station to Quesimpuco by car, plane and the roller coaster ride through twisting dirt and rock roads in four-wheel drive SUVs, was perhaps the easiest part of the journey that brought Aggie health care providers together with the Quechua people who would become their patients.
“Walking is the only option for the Quechua. The majority of the patients we treated traveled a fair distance in sandals, walking up and down steep trails, carved into rugged mountainsides,” Landman said. “One family walked for four hours to get to the clinic, and then after being treated, they had a four-hour trek back home.”
The Quechua are an indigenous, impoverished people with many needs, but few wants. With limited access to clean drinking water, no influx of imported goods, no products to export and modest success in farming, their overall nutrition is poor, which leads to many health issues. Additionally, the rugged terrain and extreme summer and winter temperatures take their toll.
“Even though many of the patients we met struggled with health issues and access to nutritious food, they were welcoming, content and very gracious people,” Landman said. “It was humbling; it helped me appreciate what I have: clean water with the turn of a knob, virtually any kind of fresh food that I want to buy or have prepared for me, indoor plumbing. The experience put a lot of priorities in perspective in terms of daily living.”
Bringing supplies and meeting the demand
With help from Bree Watzak, PharmD, BCPS, the team leader and a clinical professor in the College of Pharmacy, Landman and her colleagues met several times to pack all of the supplies, medicine and medical/dental equipment that they thought they might need to perform health assessments and treat a wide variety of illnesses, ailments and injuries.
“We knew that the majority of patients would need treatment for parasites, musculoskeletal disorders or a variety of dental issues,” said Landman. “We were able to anticipate what might be required to run the clinic based on this knowledge.”
Additionally, the team took sunglasses, toothbrushes and toothpaste to give to patients, and, volunteers counseled patients on dental, eye and general good health practices.
Volunteers took their own food for the week-long stay in Quesimpuco. Several of them donated the funds needed to purchase the medicine and medical supplies to stock the clinic, but they will tell you that they received far more than they gave.
Students learn and give back
“It was a great experience,” said Grant Gold ’18, a senior nursing student who helped staff the clinic. “I have been on two previous medical mission trips, but I mostly shadowed caregivers. This was the first time that I had direct patient care responsibilities and the autonomy to perform my duties.”
Working primarily in the triage area, Gold gathered patient histories, took vital signs and directed patients to the appropriate health care station. The team treated about 400 patients during their time in Quesimpuco, but for Gold, the memory of at least one patient persists.
“We treated a lethargic 6-year-old boy who had diarrhea, fatigue and was throwing up,” Gold said. “A few days later, he accompanied some school friends who came in for a check-up, and he was running around, playing and laughing. It was great to see that we had actually helped to make a difference in this boy’s health and life.” Similar experiences would be repeated throughout the week.
“The most memorable patient I had was an elderly woman with osteoarthritis,” said Nicole Anderson ’17, a family nurse practitioner student. “Her grown children no longer came to see her, and she was lonely. Her arthritis was so severe, she had to use two wooden sticks in order to stay upright when she walked.” Additionally, the patient had lost much of her hearing, and this seemed to trouble her most of all.
“When I examined her, I found a fungal infection in her left ear. We were able to clean this out and give her medication, and she regained some of her hearing,” Anderson said. “She cheered up immediately, and a member of our team drove her home so she wouldn’t have to make the long journey for a second time.”
The patients weren’t the only ones who benefited from the Aggies’ time in Quesimpuco.
“This experience provided me with a new depth of understanding of cultural sensitivity and how I can integrate that into my patient care, as well as the diverse roles that each member of the health care team plays in treating patients,” Gold said.
“It would have been difficult to replicate the learning environment in a clinic back home,” Anderson agreed.
“Overall, this experience showed me that I have the necessary skills to be a well-rounded, culturally competent primary care provider,” Anderson continued. “It was a fast-paced environment, but we all prevailed and we were able to make a positive impact on the health and lives of some wonderful people.”