The Collegian
Monday, May 16, 2022

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Students take global health trip to Peru during spring break

When University of Richmond students arrived at the medical clinic on their first day in Pampa Grande, Peru, there were at least 20 Peruvians waiting by the door. Some people were from the village, but others had walked a great distance from the countryside simply to have a few minutes with a doctor.

Senior Kate Dochelli said that with no fluoride in the water of Pampa Grande and with little access to dental care, it was no wonder that the medical clinic saw more than 60 patients in one day.

Dochelli was one of 13 undergraduate students who traveled to Pampa Grande during spring break for a global health and medical mission trip. The students worked with medical students and doctors at a free medical clinic, a dental clinic, and on vitamin and fluoride campaigns for school children.

"As a senior, it dawned on me that this would be my last chance to take part in an alternative spring break trip, so I decided to go for it," Dochelli said. "I was definitely nervous."

Senior Amy Mueller said she had felt she had needed to see public health delivery in a developing area to truly understand the issues facing impoverished people around the world.

"The contrast between the type of care available to the average Richmond student and the type of care available to people in Pampa Grande was astounding," Mueller said.

The major issues Mueller saw in the clinics were the lack of gynecological treatment, serious tooth decay, chronic stomach pain and arthritis.

"It was somewhat discouraging," senior Laura Deschamps said. "The clinic's free pharmacy was grossly under-stocked and many of the patients could not afford to pay for medications out-of-pocket."

There was also a lack of basic medicines like Ibuprofen.

"Looking back, the preventative care that we provided the children of Pampa -- through vitamin and fluoride campaigns -- were so simple, but will have an immense impact," Dochelli said.

Most Americans have access to fluorinated water, which Dochelli said was important for strong, healthy teeth.

"Although it seemed as though we were only able to accomplish very little," Dochelli said, "it became clear that the people of Pampa Grande were so grateful for our visit." Dr. Sean McKenna, a Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center and Medical College of Virginia physician, led the trip. Mueller said he was the type of physician she aimed to emulate because of his concern for public health and his ability to mix hard work, education and fun.

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Aside from interacting with the Peruvians in the clinic, some of the Richmond students were able to spend time with the children at their school and play soccer with locals.

"The boys, in particular, loved our cameras and behaved like little paparazzi," Deschamps said.

Mueller said some parts were more challenging than others, such as communicating in Spanish, seeing guinea pig on her dinner plate and the heartbreak that she felt for some patients.

Each visit to Pampa Grande also ensures that projects initiated by past trips are progressing as hoped. Students on previous missions to Pampa Grande had helped fund a dental chair and dental equipment for the clinic.

"Unfortunately, this equipment will do little to fix the dental health problem in the village unless there is a dentist who will regularly work at the clinic," Dochelli said.

"We hope to encourage the community to send one of their own students to dental school with the hopes that this student will return and serve as the clinic's dentist."

In the meantime, a dentist from a city about five hours away from Pampa Grande offered to work at the clinic several times a month.

"If they know that we are returning, the officials in town feel pressure to keep their promises," Mueller said, giving examples such as finding a permanent dentist for the town and using the Richmond-donated ambulance appropriately.

Deschamps said she hoped Pampa Grande would continue to see improvements in its clinic and access to a broader range of care. In particular, she hoped that families would have access to a psychologist or social worker to deal with issues of domestic violence.

Dochelli and Mueller had similar reactions.

"Many of the women in Pampa Grande are victims of domestic and sexual violence," Dochelli said, "but it is not acceptable in the Peruvian culture of talk about such things."

Mueller said she hoped that someday the women in Pampa Grande would have more control over their health through access to birth control, health education and routine gynecological exams.

"I knew that this trip would allow me to gain a better understanding of the harsh realities of medicine and health care in a third world country," Dochelli said.

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Hardy at: elizabeth.hardy@richmond.edu

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