Spelman's Global Brigade
In summer 2012 during a medical and dental health education program, Shanice Robinson, C’2015, noticed the T-shirt of another participant that read “Global Brigade in Honduras.” Six months later, she and Jasmeka Colvin, C’2014, co-founded the Spelman Global Medical-Dental Brigades. This March they took their first trip – traveling with 22 of their classmates, several Spelman administrators, and a supportive Spelman parent who is also a medical professional – to Panama where they administered medical treatment and health education to an underserved population.
Global Brigades is the world’s largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization. Founded in December 2012, Spelman’s chapter, now 34 members, is the first from a same-gender minority institution.
Their seven-day trip to three cities in Panama provided the students with experience in their desired medical professions. After spending a day sorting and labeling various vitamins and medications for parasites and allergies, the group spent three days setting up clinics, seeing patients, and even performing data informatics to create medical records and measurements.
Conquering First Day Jitters
Director of Health Services Brenda Dalton (holding child and a Spelman Brigade student.
“The first day the students were a little hesitant. They had learned how to take the vitals the night before through an interpreter, which was kind of difficult to learn in Spanish,” said Shareah Elbert-Ajogbor, program coordinator for the
Health Careers Program and adviser for the Spelman Global Brigade. Dr. Brenda Dalton, director of Spelman’s Health Services, was right there to give the students a full tutorial on how to take blood pressure and temperatures.
“We were happy that Dr. Dalton was actually able to assist and teach the students whole first day,” said Elbert-Ajogbor. “But by the second day they not only knew how to take the vitals correctly, they ran the whole clinic. We were able to just watch them work. They knew what to do.”
The group served nearly 300 patients during the course of their trip, registering, triaging, and taking vitals and medical histories. Each “brigader,” as they are called, was able to shadow medical professionals and sit in on consultations with doctors, where they received answers to their questions through interpreters.
“The biggest thing about taking the vitals was that everything had to be communicated in Spanish and none of us spoke Spanish. We had interpreters and cheat sheets, so we made it work,” said Robinson, sharing that the group saw a variety of medical conditions and many assisted the Panamanian dentist by administering fluoride treatments to the children.
“A lot of them came in with the same issues: stomach aches from parasites, headaches from vision issues because of the lack of glasses; a lot of pregnant woman had no prenatal vitamins or vitamins at all; and some had skin rashes for working out in the fields in the heat.”
Exporting The Wellness Revolution
Students provided basic health care regimens for the Honduran community.
Another major initiative the students participated in was “charlas,” also known as health education. Through games and interactive activities, the students incorporated elements of Spelman’s Wellness Revolution as they taught children about nutrition, proper hand-washing and tooth-brushing techniques, and the importance of exercising and being fit.
“The kids jumped roped, did jumping jacks and sit ups. And they really enjoyed the Germ Tag game. If you got tagged by the germ you had to be still and you had to wash your hands properly to move again,” explained Robinson, who also learned to sing fun teeth-brushing songs in Spanish to encourage the children. For the adult health education, the students used the background the brought with them from participating in Spelman’s Research Day to create posters and handouts that the interpreters used.
“They were able to tie the Wellness Revolution together with the Health Careers mission. We strive – in everything we do – to teach our students that they need to make a difference in global health care,” said Elbert-Ajogbor, admitting to being nervous about being responsible for 24 students on her first international trip. “It’s OK to take care of people at home, but globally can you make a difference? They connected those especially when they were in the indigenous community sharing the Eat Better. Move More. Sleep Well. mantra of the Wellness Revolution.”
After the patients visited their last station in the clinic, where they picked up their prescriptions and had consultations, Elbert-Ajogbor said many stayed to thank the volunteers and even take pictures with the students.
“Our brigade saw the most patients,” she said. “There was a trust the students built with the indigenous people. The first day there were some people, but the second day the word had spread and some of the same folks were coming back to the clinic – but they were bringing others – their friends and family members.
Learning Through Cultural Understanding
From exposure to hands-on practice, home visits and even the exchange of cultural activities like learning about the background of Panamanian attire and songs, students benefited from the trip just as much as the patients they treated.
“You have all these students who want to be pharmacists, dentists, different types of physicians and they were doing it,” said Elbert-Ajogbor. “A lot of them went over with not a clue of what they wanted to do, and they were able to get a glimpse of what was actually involved in their career goals.”
The full week of shadowing medical professionals was even more interesting for students because the mentors were from a different culture and spoke a different language, noted Elbert-Ajogbor.“But they connected because healthcare is universal,” she said.
The trip was a dream come true for Robinson on many levels.
“I was able to see the vision Jasmeka and I had in August of 2012 coming to fruition in March of 2014,” said the biology major, who plans to be an obstetrician-gynecologist practicing in underserved communities internationally and stateside. “I was also able to not only see the issues that patients faced, but I saw the cause of them and ways to prevent them for the future. And I was able to develop my love and passion for public health and medicine.”
Elbert-Ajogbor’s plans for next year include increasing the medical professional contingent that travels with the Spelman group to either Ghana or Honduras. “My goal is to take one person from each health field that is really needed, like an optometrist, a dermatologist, a dentist, a physician, an OB-GYN, and hopefully Dr. Dalton again,” she said. “They can expose the students and help at the same time. That is what we’re about. We want to make sure we give the students the best experience and the best exposure possible.”