New Student Organization Makes J-Term Trip to Panama

Veronica Brown '17 Assistant News Editor 

This J-term, the student organization Global Medical Brigades completed its first service trip to Panama. Varsha Prabhakar ’17 founded the organization last spring after a number of students expressed interest in participating in a medical mission trip.

During the last two semesters, the group raised $3,000 to pay for medicine they would take with them to Panama. Members worked on various fundraising projects, including selling coffee and hosting a benefit concert. In the end, the volunteers were able to bring over 15 suitcases full of medicine.

In Panama, the group divided their time between two communities, Piriati Embera and Quebrada Honda. The students set up a clinic in an unused school. The initiative was completely student led, and students rotated between several different stations.

At the first station, students asked patients intake questions, took their blood pressure and performed other routine procedures. They also had the opportunity to shadow doctors, fill prescriptions and work at the dentist’s station, where they even pulled teeth. Many of the patients’ health problems, including skin infections, parasites and back problems, are common maladies exacerbated by lack of medical attention.

The student volunteers educated the patients, which Prabhakar, a pre-med neuroscience major, referred to as “the sustainable part of the global brigades.” She explained that the organization hopes to provide lifetime improvement for the patients, not “to just come one week, provide medicine and then leave.”

Many of the patients that the students saw explained that they only ever saw a doctor when a medical brigade came to the area. Karishma Parikh ’17 described the trip as eye-opening: “So many communities do not have access consistent running water, electricity, or medical attention … All commodities that we Americans take for granted.”

Three Smith alumnae, who are all currently practicing physicians, also attended the trip. Bailey Smith-Dewey ’17 “found the most exciting experience was just chatting with our three Smith alumnae about their lives [and] their experiences at Smith.”

Most of the participants are pre-health or pre-pharmacy, but interest in a future career in the medical field is not a requirement. Smith-Dewey, who is an anthropology major, said it was “a wonderful trip for pre-med and non-pre med majors alike” and found “learning about a place so different then what I am used to [to be] a very enriching experience.” The last day of the trip was a wrap-up day where students had a chance to immerse themselves in the culture and bond with the locals they had been helping throughout the week.

The group will soon begin planning for their second mission during spring break of 2016. Global Brigades organizes trips to three other counties: Honduras, Ghana and Nicaragua.

Prabhakar hopes that they will able to go on the next trip with only Smith students. As this was the Smith chapter’s first trip, they were partnered with a group from University of San Diego. Global Medical Brigades will also host an upcoming brown bag event at the Lewis Global Studies Center to discuss the experience.