Published September 1, 2016
The carved remnants of a past, but not forgotten, civilization bask in the striking midday sun amongst tangles of trees. They climb the cracked stone stairs, an unexpected highway to a breathtaking scene of lush green below a sparkling azure sky, streaked with stratus clouds, to rest upon something holy – to gaze across a giving land that will gift them with knowledge more powerful than they could ever dream of gleaning from bound pages.
This is Xunantunich, a Mayan ceremonial center – and, no, these are not students of archaeology.
These are UB School of Nursing students, and they are discovering skills they will carry with them for a lifetime: cultural competence, advocacy, collaboration, communication, ethical decision-making. Their teachers? The Belizean people. And their team.
For the third winter intersession in a row, students travelled to Belize as part of the Community Engagement Across Populations course, this year accompanied by Clinical Assistant Professor Jennifer Guay, and worked alongside the UB School of Pharmacy and International Service Learning, a non-governmental organization that offers volunteer opportunities in developing communities. A Pace University nursing student also joined the group on its journey.
The team visited villages in need of basic medical care – Santa Familia and Blackman Eddy – and, without access to technologies they have grown accustomed to, discovered how truly valuable their analytical and critical thinking skills are in translating knowledge to action.
“We did not have access to medical health records, blood testing, chest X-rays or any other diagnostic testing,” says Jeanette Davis, now a senior in the traditional baccalaureate of nursing program. “This made me think more critically about my patients and rely on my knowledge, rather than technology, for an answer. It changed the way I interact and engage with my patients – and it allowed me to see my patient as a whole person.”
The team trekked down dusty dirt paths for home visits; they worked diligently to prepare teaching materials and set up medical clinics.
“Students checked heights/weights and vital signs, as well as patient histories and physicals,” Guay explains. “There was no privacy at the medical evaluation stations in either community – patients and students sat on church benches or chairs and were separated from other student teams and patients by only a few feet, so care had to be taken to ensure privacy and confidentiality.”
The team treated 143 patients for a range of conditions, from hypertension and diabetes to viruses, common colds, and parasites in these areas with temporary housing and a poor water supply.
One student described her experience as humbling – all of the students were energized by the generosity and hospitality of the kind people they met during their five days in the villages, and by the insight they gained there. “I truly realized that the best source of information does not come from an electronic medical record; it comes from the patient,” reflects Davis. “Listening to and communicating with your patient and establishing trust is absolutely vital to providing the very best care.”
And these students can carry with them this knowledge wherever they may go as professionals, whether they are travelling down an unpaved path in Mesoamerica, or across the blacktop surrounding them.