As a molecular biology undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley, Hiral Patel had no idea how much some arm-twisting by a friend would change her life – and, subsequently, the lives of hundreds of people in Honduras.
Patel, who finished her second year of DMU’s osteopathic medical program in May, figured she would turn her interest in medicinal biology into an eventual Ph.D. Then Berkeley classmate Daisy Leon-Martinez talked her into joining her on a medical service trip to Honduras.
“It changed the context of my life,” Patel says.
UC-Berkeley’s partner for the trip was the-then relatively new Global Brigades, which has since become the world’s largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization. While it now has sites in three countries and nine programs in areas including the environment, microfinance and law, at the time it was focused on providing medical care to severely underserved people in Honduras.
“We brought some physicians and medications and saw 300 to 800 patients a day,” Patel recalls. “But I felt I gained more than the community did. Update I was a little dissatisfied with the scope of what we could do there. There is a real need for the services we provided, but we wanted to think of something that would complement them.”
In 2008, Patel, Leon- Martinez and fellow “brigader” John Lee launched an ambitious targeted effort to help bridge the gaps between Global Brigades service trips. Their brainstorm: train local residents in one Honduran village to provide basic medical care and public health education.
“We presented our ideas at Berkeley, got the local Kiwanis to support us and put in our own money,” Patel says. “Global Brigades empowers you if you have ideas. We got their okay to take the education module to Honduras.”
Once they arrived, they walked door-to-door to learn who the local leaders were. They found four individuals who were interested in the module.
“It was very grassroots. We sat at a table in a church, using salt and balloons – ‘This is what a lung looks like when it’s constricted,’” Patel says. “We engaged them in a partnership and constantly adjusted what we were doing.”
Patel, Leon-Martinez and Lee spent the next two years trekking to and from Honduras, coming home to work out of Lee’s one-bedroom studio, network and raise money for the program. In 2009, Global Brigades gave them $2,000 for a pilot project. They also presented it as a “commitment” at that year’s Clinton Global Initiative University, an annual conference established by President Bill Clinton to engage the next generation of leaders on college campuses around the world.
Their success didn’t occur without a few bumps. The CIA estimates that 65 percent of Hondurans live below the poverty line; average family income is less than $1 a day. Patel and her colleagues had to overcome cultural and language barriers, learn how to navigate the network of non-governmental organizations and win the trust of local villagers.
“I’ve been stuck in a military coup. Once Daisy and I had to pretend to be pregnant to get out after curfew,” Patel recalls. “Once we saw a bus that had rolled downhill and we were the only ones there to help, so we made slings out of our t-shirts…Our naiveté really worked for us.”
The community health worker program the three Berkeley grads started now op- erates in 11 Honduran communities, with expansion planned in four more. Global Brigades employs a Honduran physician, coordinator and an American intern to work in country. Patel and her colleagues developed an online database to monitor the communities and address specific health needs. Amid that progress, what strikes her the most is the spirit of the Honduran people.
“It’s the third-poorest country in the western world, but the people’s positivity really appealed to me,” she says. “Every time we leave, they have a huge mass to make sure we get home safely. We play off that energy. That has helped overcome the frustrations.”
Patel will have a different experience this summer as one of two DMU students, along with Jennifer Wu, D.O.’14, to intern with the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Working with a very large health organization will add a new dimension to her work in sustainable development.
“As we become more of a global society, boundaries are melting,” she says. “It’s important that we have physicians who are engaging in such personal relationships, to be culturally sensitive, so we can be global physicians.”
Interprofessional team helps in Honduras
Hiral Patel had multiple options when she applied to medical school, but she chose DMU because of its vibrant global health program. She’s helped make it even better.
As an undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley, she helped establish a discussion-based course on various aspects of global health; last year, she and classmates Abigail Koker and Alexis Beinlich worked with Yogesh Shah, M.D., associate dean of global health, and Pam Duffy, Ph.D., P.T., assistant professor in the public health program, to establish a similar Global Health Learning Collaborative at DMU.
Patel also connected DMU with the nonprofit organization Global Brigades, making possible the University’s first medical service trips to Honduras in 2011 and this past March.
“Hiral is such a strong leader and a good teacher,” Shah says. “The success of our Honduras trips has been because of her.”
DMU’s latest service trip to the Central American country was its largest, with 33 students from seven of the University’s nine programs; four Drake University pharmacy students; four DMU and Drake faculty and adjunct faculty members; two physicians, a social worker and a medical resident from Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines; and a Spanish instructor. The diverse group inspired the opportunity for more than medical service.
“This trip was the best interprofessional education opportunity we’ve had at the University,” says Kendall Reed, D.O., FACO S, FACS, dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine. He accompanied the group, as did DMU alumni Kevin Ware, D.O.’73, ABFM, and Larry Braver, D.O.’77.
Prior to the group’s departure, Jennifer Wu, D.O.’14, took the lead in collecting donations of medications and supplies; the group hauled 38 extra-large duffel bags full of the stuff to Honduras. In country, Patel and Sarah Karalus, D.O.’14, scheduled students to work with different health care providers in a variety of roles. The brigaders typically rose at 5:30 a.m. to travel to clinics, most conducted in schools; they concluded each day discussing interprofessional issues, reviewing cases and packing up supplies for the next day. The group also visited an orphanage, provided patient education and supported dental care stations.
“I’ve done lots of medical brigading, and I can say this was one of the best groups we’ve had,” Patel says of the DMU students. “We had the longest days, but no one complained. Plus they paid money to go. That says something about the DMU community.”
The DMU brigade treated an estimated 1,000 patients. Reed praises Global Brigades for providing impeccably organized transportation, housing and security for the group. That partnership will make possible an annual DMU service trip to Honduras, an opportunity he hopes more alumni will consider joining.
Reed also applauds the DMU students who participated.
“Students from all our colleges were nothing short of outstanding,” he says. “It was a dramatic cultural opportunity for them, and they jumped right in.”