When you think of a typical college student on spring break, places like Cabo, South Padre, and San Diego come to mind—with students spending their days on the beach soaking up the sun. This spring break, 30 Santa Clara University students will journey to Central America to experience a very different type of sunlight.
For the past three years, SCU’s Global Medical Brigades club has traveled to Eastern Panama to organize and volunteer at a weeklong clinic in a marginalized community, providing desperately needed health care. This year the club trip will be led by club president Mackenzie Zorkin, vice president Keelan Shaw Connelly, two staff chaperones, Dr. Hess and Dr. Murray, and two volunteer doctors.
The club is traveling to an area in Eastern Panama where 57 percent of citizens do not have health care, the students say.
“Global Medical Brigades sets up groups of college students that go down every three to four months and we actually become the primary healthcare for these villages,” says Connelly, a junior. “The first year, there were people who had never seen any type of medical professional at all and people who walked three days to get to the clinic. The impact is amazing.”
SCU Global Medical Brigades is one of 380 Global Brigades chapters nationally. As the world’s largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization, Global Brigades has mobilized thousands of university students and professionals through nine skill-based service programs. Founded in 2004, the organization’s vision is to improve equality of life, by igniting the largest student-led social-responsibility movement on the planet.
Connelly, who has been involved with Global Medical Brigades ever since she transferred to Santa Clara her freshman year, says that the club continues to generate interest on campus. “Word is out that this is a great trip, and especially when Santa Clara is such a service-based school, a lot of students just fall right into it.”
The club has come a long way since its beginning, when the students stayed, literally, in a jungle, remembers Zorkin, a senior triple major in biology, anthropology, and public health. “I don’t mean in a house in the jungle. I mean in the jungle,” she laughs, describing a run-down school with no doors or windows. The students slept on air mattresses, after a nine-hour drive through rugged conditions.
“Luckily it’s not like that anymore,” says Zorkin. “It was fun at the time but I don’t want to do anything like that again.”
This year the club hopes to stay at a Global Brigades compound, with students from other types of service programs, including medical, law, public health, water, and more. The compound enables all the students to stay together and aid the same community.
The medical work undertaken by Global Brigades is a very systematic process, says Zorkin. Once the team is at their location, they have four days to set up medical clinics.
“We bring our own medicine, our own doctors, and we basically go in every day and set up a mini doctor’s office,” she says. “We do it all ourselves, which is the exciting part. We have four sections: triage, doctors, pharmacy, and dental. It is all very hands on.”
Connelly says the most exciting part about the trip is seeing the impact their help has on the Eastern Panama communities.
“One of my favorite things about this trip is how immediately you can see the benefit of the care we provide,” she says. She said the group has started to incorporate a public health section, giving workshops called charlas, (speeches in Spanish) to about some of the very basic public health issues that are habits in the United States. but haven’t been ingrained into the culture in Panama.
Says Connelly: “This year, it will be wonderful to see the pairing between the kind of long-term effect of the public health clinics and the immediate benefit of the health clinics.”