International Medical Missions

Changing Patients' and Students' Lives

International Clinical ExperienceRegular medical mission trips to Guatemala and Jamaica help provide nursing, physical therapy and other College of Health Professions students with the clinical experiences they’ll need to excel in their fields, as well as support Sacred Heart’s strong commitment to service learning – projects that allow students to use their time and talents to help others and support Sacred Heart’s caring mission to contribute “to the human community.”

Led by School of Nursing faculty and staff, the trips take students twice a year to the small Guatemalan villages of San Antonio Aguas Calientes and Santa Maria de Jesus and Jamaica’s capital, Kingston. There in tents, schools and churches, students set up clinics and rudimentary surgical facilities to see as many as 800-1,200 patients during a one-week stay.

Over the past three years, the trips have expanded to include students and staff from departments throughout the University. And because the same areas are visited each time, real relationships with patients have formed.

“Before we started these trips, many of the adult patients we see have never had any type of medical care, let alone regular medical care,” said Dr. Kathy Fries, director of Undergraduate Nursing, who leads the Guatemalan missions. “That we can now see patients twice a year, and provide follow-up to control conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, is really terrific. For patients who need care more sophisticated than what we can provide, we do our best to provide referrals and help them access the treatments they need.”

On the last Guatemala trip, occupational and physical therapy students spent part of their time teaching strengthening exercises to elderly patients and people with disabilities, as well as working in a wheelchair factory to build and custom-fit wheelchairs to six patients. Before the trip, students raised $1,200 to pay for the chairs.

“It was an incredible experience to see students put to use things they learned in the classroom and solve problems together,” said Clinical Associate Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences Professor Donna Bowers.

Students also spent time working with children at a malnutrition center. There, Bowers saw a little boy who the previous year was too weak to sit up straight and was now running playing. “He looked like a different kid,” Bowers exclaimed. “The work we did there to educate caregivers, and help patients, clearly had an impact. That was incredible to see.”

Students and staff saw similar successes on their last mission trip to Jamaica, said Nursing Assistant Clinical Professor Sheryl Watson. “Students administered medications, served in surgical rotations, educated patients about their prescriptions, ran an eyeglass clinic and, because of the limited supplies we had, sometimes had to get very creative,” she said.

Some of the students’ clinical work was no different from what they perform on rotations here in the United States. But the unique experience of seeing patients with such huge health disparities first-hand, and gain an international perspective on the great need that exists for quality health care and caregivers, was invaluable.

“There are so many things we take for granted – running water, transportation to the next town – that people in other countries just don't have,” said Fries, who is gearing up to lead more students to Guatemala in October. “On these medical missions, our students change lives and bring home experiences and learning that is only going to make them more compassionate and skilled caregivers here in the U.S., or wherever they choose to spend their careers and serve.”