UW News

November 16, 2011

Pharmacy students lead Honduran medical brigade

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

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Pharmacy student Faaiza Alibhai’s recent trip to Honduras was not only a great opportunity to experience another country and provide health care to a resource-limited population. It was also, she said, a fantastic chance to further prepare for a career working with people from diverse backgrounds.

“My Spanish is limited,” said the second-year student, “but I appreciated that I could communicate with patients by attempting to speak the language and using hand signals and motions. It was amazing how much we could understand each other and overcome barriers just by trying.”

Alibhai spent a week in Honduras this past September with 28 other UW pharmacy students as part of a Global Brigades medical project. Global Brigades is a non-government organization that empowers groups of volunteers (“brigades”) to facilitate sustainable solutions in under-resourced communities while fostering local cultures.

The group of pharmacy students brought with them almost $25,000 worth of donated medicines. The students had procured the medications from area pharmacies, from national pharmacy organizations, and from funds they raised and donated themselves.

They also recruited 11 Puget Sound-area health care providers to join them — including doctors, a nurse, a nurse practitioner, a physical therapist, and, of course, pharmacists. Those pharmacists were School of Pharmacy clinical and affiliate faculty members Jennifer Chang, Don Downing and Holly Gurgle; the Washington State Pharmacy Association’s Jenny Arnold, 06; and recent alumnus Luis Ramos, 10.

The brigade’s goal was to offer a temporary, free clinic in the village of Joya Grande, a town of about 660 people located northwest of Tegucigalpa.

Joya Grande has a good school, a high literacy rate and relatively easy access to safe water, but it is part of a nation with high poverty and unemployment rates. Further, 30 percent of Joya Grande residents don’t have working latrines, and there is no health care facility in the village. Some common illnesses in the region include diarrhea, intestinal parasites and skin fungus. The village leaders have expressed a need for more health education and disease prevention.

So the team of volunteers set out to help fulfill that need.

On the first morning they arrived in Joya Grande, there was already a long line of Honduran villagers waiting for them.

“They didn’t seem to care about having to wait,” said Alibhai. “They were just so happy to see us and were so welcoming.”

The volunteers set up multiple health care stations at the local school. A Honduran dentist, pharmacist and obstetrician/gynecologist  worked with the team. Overall, the brigade offered intake, triage, medical care, dental care, gynecological care, pharmaceutical care and health education programs.

The pharmacy students worked side-by-side with the care providers, sharing their opinions and medication expertise. They also put the skills they had learned at pharmacy school to good use.

“While in Honduras, I improved my ability to formulate, implement, evaluate and review patient care plans through hands-on training in triage, consultation and the pharmacy,” said second-year student Fabienne Chou.

She also witnessed creative problem-solving firsthand.

“One baby we saw had severe burns on its foot that were several days old and infected,” said Chou. “The surgery resident debrided the scab and applied a high dose of antibiotic. Had this not happened, the child could have had its foot amputated.”

The brigade also taught basic health education programs for adults and children. By the last day of the clinic, some of the Honduran children were showing off to the volunteers what they had learned about how to brush their teeth and wash their hands.

Ultimately, more than 800 Hondurans, many of whom had traveled from neighboring villages, received care. People who needed pharmaceutical treatment received medications for free that they otherwise may not have been able to afford or obtain.  All patients were given antiparasitic drugs.

This was only the second time since Global Brigades was founded in 2004 that a pharmacy student group has led a medical brigade. It was one of a small percentage of brigades that has been led by graduate level students.

“Generally brigades have relied heavily on doctor consultations,” said Alibhai. “But in our circumstance we placed a larger focus on collaboration between the various disciplines. Providers spent their time and efforts diagnosing patients, leaving the treatment of the patients entirely up to the pharmacists.”

The volunteers also visited an orphanage and an HIV/AIDS care center while in Honduras.

Alibhai and fellow second-year student Denise Ngo planted the seeds for this trip last fall. Both of them had previously traveled to Honduras through Global Brigades as UW undergraduates. In their first year of pharmacy school, they started talking about how they’d like to return now that they had more hands-on clinical skills.

Once they received the go-ahead from the School of Pharmacy, they got started. After recruiting their fellow participants, and with initial support from the School’s Deans Fund for Excellence, the group of students held an auction that raised $8,000 to help pay for travel costs. They also worked to secure donated medicines. They even created an elective preparatory course featuring guest speakers covering topics ranging from basic Spanish to cultural sensitivity to womens health.

“The brigade was such an amazing experience that many of us hope to go on another one,” said Clinical Professor Downing.

He recounted the day an elderly Honduran woman was waiting near the pharmacy at day’s end. She had already waited more than three hours to get care and had received her medications. She also had a long walk home ahead of her.

“I asked in my broken Spanish if she needed help,” said Downing. “She looked at me and said she hadn’t had a chance to say ‘thank you and that she wasn’t going to leave until she let us know how she felt about what we had done for her.”