Nicaragua Part 1: Medical Brigade

Alyssa MacKinnon

Global Brigade is an organization that relies on students to put together a program that helps communities in need all over the world.

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There are various brigades and the option for hybrid brigades which splits your volunteer week into two brigades, which was what happened during this Spring Break when Kaitlin O’Boyle and I went to Nicaragua, specifically the region of Estelí, and stayed in a compound with 25 other students from Grinnell College, Iowa.

The program Coordinator was Julio César Ruiz, who was leading his fifth brigade. He lives in Jinotega, a town just outside our medical brigade location of El Rosario. He was born in Nicaragua but moved to Atlanta, Georgia.

Mornings began at 7 a.m. (or, so, we had something called “Nicaragua time,” meaning we estimated for additional time whenever because nothing was quite precise) with a breakfast of rice, beans, fruit and cereal. Coffee was even more delicious while enjoying the sun slowly rising over the mountains from the gazebos outside the cafeteria, with the occasional animal cozying up for a bite of food.

The compound was pretty large and featured a myriad of educational stations, like dinosaurs that demonstrated scientific concepts such as solar power or centrifugal motion. There was very little internet access in the country but it truly just helped students get more connected to each other rather than the web. There was a pool above the dorms near the cafeteria that was often rented out for weddings! The dorms were quaint with four or so to a room and the ability to have a hot shower after a long day. Luxuries like a hot shower in a country where water can take miles of walking to acquire made us all very thankful for the compound we were in.

We rode the bus to the clinic (something like a large house) which had six stations. The six stations were: Triage (patient intake), Dentistry, Consult (assisting the native or U.S. volunteer doctors), Charla (playing with the children), OB/GYN, and lastly Pharmacy (giving out prescriptions and hygiene items). Each station was cordoned off by sheets tied to bricks; the gynecologist was the only person to have a substantial and locked door, for obvious reasons.

Triage was difficult for students who didn’t speak any Spanish, but thankfully, we had translators who worked with the students to help them understand everyone’s concerns. Charla was very active, usually involving a mix of coloring, frisbee, ball throwing and simply talking. The OB/GYN was my least favorite station because it was strictly observation unless a patient was in pain, then most students said, “Quieres sustengo su mano?” meaning, “do you want me to hold your hand,” essentially.

Lunches were eaten together reflecting on our roles here in the country and how we could continue to improve by reorganizing or practicing different elements and creating systems that utilized our strengths. I was stationed in dentistry on my last day, which I personally found to be the most exciting since I was able to get very close to the procedure, holding various instruments and grabbing items for her throughout the extraction of a severely rotted tooth. Consultation was fascinating with some of the Nicaraguan doctors. Bengay was a foreign concept for treatment, and in my consultations with an M.D. from the Ministry of Health, I often suggested it as a treatment for chronic muscle soreness in various patients which helped me feel as though I was contributing more to that stations mission despite my lack of medical knowledge.

“It was interesting to see that what we consider OTC, [over the counter] the doctors here needed to prescribe,” Kaitlin O’Boylee said of her experience in the pharmacy station.

Each night, we discussed together after dinner on the experiences of the day, what we enjoyed, what we could improve on, how we could do more for the community and its people. We often talked about the communities we were helping, the thought processes behind our desires to help. Many of the “Grinnelians” as they called themselves, discussed topics like “the white savior complex” in great depth, critically analyzing their experience beyond the superficial to get to the heart of the behavior.

They often asked themselves where actions originated from and if the interactions of gratitude from the people they were helping were genuine or if some things were simply another part of the “program” we were a part of. It was truly refreshing to meet people who thought about life in the most meaningful ways and deeply cared about the impact they could have.