When 12 School of Nursing (SON) students and 2 faculty traveled to Costa Rica for a week, they served as medical volunteers in a clinic. They also bartered in open air markets, watched crocodiles lounging in the warm mud, ziplined through tropical flora, and became immersed in the local culture, gaining valuable insight and experience in the process.
SON partnered with International Service Learning (ISL), a humanitarian organization that provides healthcare service learning trips, to plan the medical humanitarian trip to Costa Rica.
“We worked with the UTC International Office to find an organization to work with, and we were very happy to find ISL.They offer volunteers an opportunity to provide healthcare and service work on a person to person level. Working directly with the local people, you learn more about the country and its people and what their needs are. It’s a wonderful immersion experience,” said Dr. Susan Davidson, Professor and Coordinator of Gateway RN-BSN Program, SON.
Nursing students interested in the trip were tasked with writing essays about why they wanted to go and what they hoped to gain from the experience. Twelve upcoming junior and senior students were chosen, but their preparation didn’t end there. They raised all the money themselves through a bake sale, selling t-shirts, and partnering with downtown restaurants, like Big River Grille, where, on designated nights, a certain portion of the restaurant’s proceeds went towards the trip.
From the moment their plane touched down, the group was immersed in Costa Rican culture. ISL paired the group with a native Costa Rican guide, who stuck with them through the whole trip, from the time they arrived at the airport until the time they departed.
Their first full day in Costa Rica began with an orientation class, where their guide explained the local culture, the details of their itinerary, and what they would be doing at the clinic event where they would be volunteering.
The group was tasked with collecting health histories and compiling that data onto preprinted medical forms with questions in both English and Spanish. The physician who was going to be accompanying them to the clinics also came to their orientation to explain what they could expect. She explained some of the common conditions and diseases that the students would likely encounter: skin conditions, parasites, and other acute illnesses. They also had a language class during which they were taught medical terminology and common phrases like “hello,” “goodbye,” and “how are you feeling?”
“Our students were nervous about the language classes, but they did very well!” said Davidson.
That evening, for fun, their guide brought in a dance instructor to teach them some Latin American dances.
“That was a lot of fun, and it got us more immersed into the culture – and wore us out! We certainly slept well that evening,” said Davidson.
Saturday, the group put on their scrubs and took a bus out to the neighborhoods where the people they would be working with lived. The houses were made primarily from corrugated tin – some pieces shiny, some colorful, and some rusted. Dogs, chickens, ducks, and other animals ran freely and lines of laundry criss-crossed pathways. Children played barefoot in the streets, and the people greeted the students with friendly smiles.
Students broke into groups of 3-4 and were paired with interpreters, 3rd year medical students from the local university in Costa Rica. The UTC students were encouraged to practice their Spanish as much as they could, however, relying only on their interpreters when necessary. They went door to door to invite the people to the clinics that they would be holding in the coming days.
They passed out stickers, toothbrushes, and toothpaste, as well as some candy and other things that people had donated. The children were particularly shy.
Clinics lasted two days, and Sunday was the first full day. The Costa Rican doctor was present, and the students were once again set up in small groups with an interpreter. Though the forms were in both English and Spanish, they were instructed to use the Spanish they had practiced as much as possible – the interpreter was there only to help them if they stumbled.
“The interpreters were complimenting our students, saying how proficient they were. Much of the time, the interpreters didn’t even need to jump in to help. The patients also commented on how easily they could understand them,” said Davidson.
Students checked vital signs, listened to the heart and lungs, took the medical histories, and did the work ups. The Doctor would then come over, and the students explain what the person said and what they found. The Doctor asked any further questions if needed, then made the diagnosis.
“Our guide told us we wouldn’t recognize people when we saw them again. When they came to the clinic, they wore what we would call our Sunday best. This was a big event to them, getting to come to the clinic. When we go to the doctor, we crawl out of bed and come in our sweats, but for these people, it’s rare, so it’s a big deal,” said Davidson. “We were so impressed with how friendly and grateful people were.”
There was also a pharmacy table, with students rotating in and out, working with a local pharmacist. Students learned how to give instructions for how to take or use the medications in Spanish.
“We brought lots of over the counter medicines ourselves, and the doctor working with us also brought prescription drugs from her clinic,” explained Davidson.
After each clinic day, there was a lecture. One night, a Costa Rican nurse spoke to the group, and on another, a homeopathic practitioner taught the group about the natural remedies used in Costa Rica.
The third day was a “play day” where the group interacted with the local people, and particularly the children, in a nonmedical capacity.
“We told the people to bring their children, and we had sidewalk chalk, bubbles, jump ropes, coloring books and crayons, balls and bats, and other fun stuff. The purpose was to show the children that doctors and nurses aren’t people to be afraid of – we play too!” said Davidson.
The group was pleased that every person they interacted with left with something – not just a diagnosis, but a tangible gift as well.
“We brought 14 large suitcases of donated items with us, so everyone received something – not just a diagnosis and prescription, but a bag of toiletries, or, with the children, some kind of gift like bubbles or a sticker book,” Davidson said. “When we left, we also left everything we could behind. The remainders of bottles of shampoo and soap, leftover bug spray, sunscreen. Our guide said, ‘We can take everything you don’t use and put it to use, because we have such need.’ We were happy to keep helping in any way we could, even as we were leaving.”
The group had departed Chattanooga on Thursday, July 21, and returned the following Thursday, July 28. A week may not seem so long, but Davidson explains that the whole group gained valuable experience and insight in that time.
“I’m really glad I got to go, it was just such a great opportunity. We lose sight of how good we have it at home. These immersion experiences really show us what’s going on in the world. I wish every one of our students – not just nursing, but every UTC student – could have an experience like this,” Davidson said.