Mission Trip to Guatemala Helps Protect Families from Tainted Water

Nursing students Kayla Farrell, left, and Hannah Cronan in Guatemala

News Story: February 12, 2015

A contingent of Sacred Heart University students and faculty from health-care disciplines has just returned from the school’s latest excursion to Guatemala where, for the past five years, faculty members and students have been helping improve health and health education among resident families. On the most recent trip, conducted January 17-24, they were able to provide 13 families with membrane filters to help cleanse water sourced from their area’s main supply.

A SHU group has traveled to Guatemala three times a year—October, January and March—since 2010 to provide participating students with a global health-care experience and fulfill their clinical rotation requirement, fieldwork or Capstone project requirements, according to Professor Michelle A. Cole, a faculty leader with SHU’s School of Nursing. The University partners with three Guatemalan towns: Santa Maria de Jesus, Pastores and San Antonio Aguas Calientes. All are adjacent to the popular tourist area of Antigua.

Christina Gunther, director of Global Programs for the College of Health Professions at SHU, initiated the Guatemala missions. Gunther had lived in the mission area for a time and identified certain needs in the community. She proposed health-care support. The very first mission trip served as an exploration and opportunity to address certain health issues. Going forward, it became clear there were other sustainable projects.

A main initiative has been the distribution and monitoring of water filters. “People don’t often have running water at home, so they must get it from a pila—a concrete water basin located at a central point in their area,” Cole explained. “The water is used for cooking, bathing and other needs.”

Unfortunately, the water collected in the pila often contains fecal matter and other environmental contaminants like bacteria and parasites, which causes infections, gastritis, vomiting and diarrhea. The filters that the SHU group supplies are attached to five-gallon containers that each family fills from the pila. These remove harmful toxins and parasites from the water as it’s poured through the membrane, dramatically improving the water’s quality, according to Cole.

“People there don’t often see physicians, as it’s unaffordable. The cost of a single visit can be equivalent to a week’s salary. As a result, many people live with chronic conditions. Filters help decrease the disease burden,” she added.

Filters cost $55 each and are purchased by the University with funds raised by students.

The January mission program was led by Professor Eileen Yost and comprised 38 people in all, including 20 students from nursing, six from physical therapy and six from speech and language pathology.

“We’re not a drop-in, drop-out kind of group,” Cole said of the mission. “We make long-lasting connections with the communities. On our last trip, we presented the results of a random, door-to-door health survey to illustrate health concerns and the need for improved water sources, and also health initiatives for women and children. We would like to identify solutions and build relationships. Our commitment is a great illustration of the University’s mission service in action.”

The January trek was Jessica McGuigan’s ’15 third nursing mission program and second time in Guatemala. “Witnessing the poverty and need for health care in Guatemala makes you stop and think of how lucky we are, and no matter the degree of help that we give them, we never stop hearing ‘thank you’ and ‘God bless you’,” she said.

For Hannah L. Cronan ’15, a representative to the Student Nurse Advisory Committee, the January program was her second medical mission program. Her key takeaway was “being able to see the growth of our students and faculty and the ability to provide for others. This experience changes your life in so many ways, while also changing someone else’s,” she said.