Guatemala Trip Serves Communities, Inspires Students

Maddy Burke stood in an elementary school classroom in rural Guatemala, assisting a doctor with two patients, a mother and daughter. The mother said that her daughter hadn’t eaten properly in two years, and the mother was suffering from abdominal pain.

"The only thing the doctor could do was prescribe vitamins for the girl. Vitamins weren’t really going to help her, but it was the best he could do," said Burke, a senior in biological sciences. "And for the mother, the doctor realized she had cholecystitis, which is an inflammation of the gallbladder. So, she needed to go to the hospital to get her gallbladder removed, but the nearest hospital was an hour away, and the mother might not have the money or means to travel there. I really saw the differences between what they had compared to the medicine we have in the United States."

Burke and Grace Tang, a junior in biological sciences, traveled to Guatemala during spring break with the Global Medical Brigades (GMB), an organization that connects students from the United States and Europe with doctors in under resourced countries. Students spend a week assisting doctors with patient intake and surveying the community to see what resources they need so other brigades can provide those necessities in the future. Burke and Tang volunteered with GMB previously, and the experience made them want to return. Both said that they appreciated being able to serve communities that are most in need of medical care.

"I have always been involved in some sort of service, and it’s part of my life," Tang said. "GMB has been very influential on my CMU experience. The doctors really try to involve us in patient care, which I feel like I wouldn’t have experienced anywhere else."

Jason D’Antonio , assistant teaching professor of biological sciences, director of the Carnegie Mellon Health Professions Program and primary adviser to the Carnegie Mellon chapter of GMB, said that programs like this offer students a chance to serve communities who are most in need of medical care.

"The hands-on experience of assisting physicians and dentists provides our students an opportunity to directly interact with patients, which is not always easy to do," D’Antonio said. "What’s so unique about this program is that students are exposed to patients who often have rarely or never seen a doctor or dentist. Interacting with patients from severely under resourced communities helps our students better appreciate the value of basic health care while witnessing firsthand the sociocultural factors that represent barriers to patients accessing care."

Like Burke, Tang saw how these factors affect patients firsthand.

"In this community, they do a lot of weaving, and it’s very evident in their clothes that it’s all done by hand. It’s super beautiful," Tang said. "A woman came in and had the tensest back because she had been weaving her whole life. There was no chiropractor available near the village, so we just provided some medicine to make her muscles less tense all the time."

Burke and Tang both said their experiences with GMB have influenced their plans for their futures. Burke plans to attend medical school in fall 2025, and she hopes to specialize in radiology.

"GMB affirmed that I want to go into the medical field," Burke said. "Seeing how the doctors work, it’s like a puzzle to them. They have to figure out all the symptoms, all the things the patient is telling them and piece them together to figure out what’s going on. It gave me even more of an appreciation for how service can tie into medicine. As a doctor, I would want to be able to take trips like these with different groups and help provide medical care in places like these."

Tang said she plans to pursue a Ph.D. after she finishes her undergraduate education. She said that she hopes to go to graduate school, and learning how to communicate with people from a wide variety of backgrounds through GMB will help her with her goal.

"GMB helped me learn about the world, which is really important no matter where you want to go in the future," Tang said. "I felt the communication skills I learned are really important. No matter what field you’re in, you have to communicate with your coworkers and the community."

D’Antonio said that as much as GMB has helped Burke and Tang develop their skills and serve others, they have helped GMB as well.

"I appreciate Grace and Maddy’s determination and vision in making the GMB opportunity a reality for the GMB chapter members at CMU. They are organized, driven, professional in their interactions and highly motivated in their mission to bring accessible care to those in need," D’Antonio said.

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