Medical outreach in El Salvador

This is me, Jonathan, in El Salvador

For a week and a half this past summer, I took part in Des Moines University’s medical service trip to El Salvador. Twelve other DMU students and ten faculty embarked on this experience with me. Virtually all programs were represented in the trip, with eight second-year D.O.s, a first-year D.O., a PA student, a P.T. student, an M.P.H. student, and me – a D.P.M. With such a great group, this promised to be an amazing trip.

Our whole global health group for 08

We arrived in the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador, in late June and were eager to get started. First, the group met with our local collaborators, the Commandos de Salvamento, a humanitarian group similar to the Red Cross. After a day of briefing and getting acquainted with the city, we divided up into groups and headed to two sites hours apart from each other. My group departed for a remote region on the Pacific coast known as Puerto Parada, one of the poorest areas of the country.

Puerto Parada is a beautiful area, with plush jungles and beaches of black sand created by the majestic volcanoes on the horizon. But after looking beyond the amazing landscapes, it became evident just how poor this region’s inhabitants were. Children bathing in muddy water lined with trash, families fortunate to have any sort of roof over their heads at all — it became clear just how much these people would need our group’s medical care.

Before we even got to our first site, we could see our patients — hundreds of people standing around eagerly awaiting our team. I started out working on my own, trying to diagnose and treat whatever came my way (keep in mind I was trying to do this all in Spanish!) If there was ever a reason to pay attention in physical diagnosis class, this was it! I felt overwhelmed for the first couple hours, but began getting the hang of things by the end of the day. Needless to say, I slept great that night in my hammock at our open-air hacienda.

crowds waited for us at each site

We spent the next four days treating hundreds of patients at various sites. We would usually leave the hacienda around eight in the morning and go to a new site each day. Some of these days involved literally working out of peoples’ backyards next to their farm animals. After taking a brief lunch, we would go back to w

ork ‘til around five in the afternoon. The most common presentations were colds, sore throats, urinary tract infections, untreated diabetes and parasitic infections. Some of the more rare diagnosis were heart murmurs, vitiligo and diabetes insipidus. Generally after being seen, the patients would visit our makeshift pharmacy and be educated by our M.P.H. student. The people were so grateful. Often this was the first medical treatment they had ever received.

M.P.H. student Mollie James shows kids how to brush teeth

During our time in El Salvador, both groups treated a combined total of 2411 patients. Some days we saw up to 400 patients, but the group handled it well. All the students did an outstanding job, and we were fortunate to have the opportunity to work with such fine faculty members.

My trip to El Salvador this summer was an experience of a lifetime and something I won’t soon forget. It is one of those events that takes you out of your comfort zone and shows you that the world isn’t made up of Starbucks and shopping malls. Instead, it shows y

ou what it looks like to live on $5 or less a day and still smile for what you have. It shows you the true meaning of resilience and strength. And it shows you that we as future physicians stand to learn so much about medicine from people half a world away. 

~Jonathan Thompson
  D.P.M. student, class of ’11

Interested in next spring’s trip to El Salvador? Contact Jonathan Thompson ( or Kendall Blair ( for more information.


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