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MU volunteers provide medical care in Ghana and Panama

MU's chapter of Global Medical Brigades heads abroad to administer assistance to poor communities.

January 23, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Brigade members prepare and organize medical supplies in Ghana. The poor water system is one of the reasons why the community members require medical attention. Photo courtesy of Global Brigades

Traveling thousands of miles to third-world countries requires preparation, especially when the goal is to provide medical care. Students with the MU chapter of Global Medical Brigades will need to learn new languages, practice basic medical skills and raise money to buy medicine for the trip. The two groups will then head to Panama and Ghana this summer to administer medical care.

Global Brigades sends university students and professionals in the law, microfinance and health fields abroad. The volunteers travel to countries that are lacking in those areas. For example, Ghana and Panama have poor health care systems that rely partially on foreign assistance to provide basic needs. People in some rural communities only receive the opportunity for medical care when a brigade travels there every four months.

Molly Johnson, president of the MU chapter, traveled with the group last summer to Honduras. Her favorite moment of the trip was when an older man expressed his gratitude.

“All I did was take his blood pressure, and he kept thanking me,” Johnson says. “Later in the day he gave me a picture of Jesus he had drawn on an old torn-up poster. It was really sweet he did that for me.”

Before they leave, learning the language is helpful. A few of the weekly meetings, which last nearly all year, are dedicated to the dialect of each respective location. “We go over terms that we would use in clinics like, ‘Wait in line here,’ or basic body parts, but we also learned general things like, ‘Does it hurt?’” says Ben Daniels, a member of the MU Brigade.

In addition to language, the students work to increase their medical knowledge such as taking someone’s blood pressure and heart rate. Students with little to no medical experience can sign up. In fact, they’re the majority of those who go. Although there are a few graduate students and EMTs signed up, most are students hoping to pursue a career in medicine.

On March 2, the group will host a mock brigade where local doctors and dentists will provide free patient check-ups for the Columbia community. The members get to practice what they’ll do abroad and work with patient intake and in the various health screening stations.

The MU Medical Brigade must raise funds for medical supplies to take on their trips. Any leftovers will go to local pharmacies run by trained community members. The group has hosted a trivia night, a 5K and supply drives at D&H pharmacy where they ask shoppers to donate an extra item such as a bottle of aspirin. Students on the Panama trip will pay roughly $1,500 while those going on the Ghana trip can expect to pay nearly $3,000.

Melanie Mason, who founded the MU chapter in 2010, switched from pre-med to pursuing a masters in public health after her experience working with the locals. “I remember being on the plane going back from Panama and having a revelation,” Mason says. “We gave them the anti-parasitics, but what happens when they go back and drink the same water?”

The needs are not only immediate for the people they help but also continue when the students leave. This is a necessity because in some areas of Ghana, there is only one doctor for every 48,000 people, and Panama’s rural population often lives more than three hours from medical care. Helping people help themselves is key, Johnson says. “The best part about this organization is that they are willing to educate these people on how to do this on their own.”

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