Sustainable Healthcare in the DR
Driving down a rugged dirt road near the coast of the Dominican Republic’s Puerto Plata province, we peeked our heads outside the bus windows to feel the warm tropical breeze and steal a glance at the sun rising against the palm trees. It was 6:30 AM, and we were slowly making our way to set up a medical clinic in the Haitian batey of La Grúa. Located near miles of abandoned sugarcane fields that the nation was once known for, La Grúa has become a subject of many Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) over recent years, but few have succeeded in making a sustainable impact.
Timmy Global Health is an international nonprofit organization based in Indianapolis working to expand accessible healthcare and empower volunteers to face the most difficult challenges in global health. In Las Canas, DR, Timmy Global Health partners with the 7 Elements (7E) organization to serve the surrounding Dominican and Haitian neighborhoods. Timmy clinics help provide one piece of the puzzle in the efforts by 7E to sustain the seven elements of human security by improving environmental, economic, food, health, individual, community, and political security in northern central DR. This medical service mission in January 2015 was the first for the 7E and Timmy Global Health partnership, and the very first medical trip for the University of Massachusetts Amherst chapter.
Arriving in La Grúa, I was immediately struck by the level of poverty in the community. Homes built from sheet metal and scrap wood lined the roads. Stray dogs wandered where they pleased, scouring for food. Children ran barefoot through the streets, with gasoline-bottle toy cars and limbless dolls in tow. Teens played checkers with red and white bottle caps. Bathing, waste, and the collection of drinking water all occurred at the riverbanks, creating sanitation and health concerns. But, I was in awe of the warm welcome we received and the vibrant culture of the people of La Grúa. Community health agents who worked with 7E calmly directed crowds. Young men helped to unload supplies, pitch our tents, and carry benches from the community church out onto the roadside for the elderly. Women volunteered to be cocineras, and prepared traditional meals of chicken, rice, and beans for the entire clinic and our patients. Young children, unafraid of strangers, walked right up to us, grasped our hands, and asked us our names – surprisingly in English – which they must have picked up from other NGOs that have come through.
Two years in the planning, this medical service trip meant a lot to us members of UMass Timmy Global Health. The UMass team was comprised of 16 undergraduate students who worked at various stations in the clinics, recording medical histories, taking patient vital signs, scribing for medical professionals, administering fluoride, and filling prescriptions. We were joined by five American medical professionals and four local doctors who provided patients with primary care, a nurse who ran laboratory and blood work, and a pharmacist who managed a pharmacy at each of our clinic sites. Also on our team were excellent program coordinators and directors, and three phenomenal translators who helped us indefinitely, although patients often had a good sense of humor towards our broken Spanish and Creole.
The most common illnesses we came across in the clinic were general pain, hypertension, and diabetes, all things related to hard labor and poor diet. Because poverty was such a great issue, it was difficult to consult patients about the value of nutritious foods. Many of these patients do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It was also our goal to teach the importance of healthcare and seeking medical attention. In addition to sending medical service teams to Las Canas, DR, Timmy Global Health is in the process of creating a continuity of care to establish a sustainable healthcare system. Currently in place is a referral program for patients in need of extra care, a community health promoter program, and local management by doctors and medical coordinators in the area.
Over the course of our seven-day stay in Las Canas, we provided medical care to five communities and saw 685 patients in total. UMass currently holds the record for the most patients treated in a Timmy clinic in one day with over 150 patients seen! I am grateful to have had this experience and to have met and learned from so many Dominican and Haitian locals in the clinics. As a college chapter, UMass Timmy Global Health looks forward to working with 7E in our annual medical service missions to develop new ways to promote sustainable nutrition and health education in the communities surrounding Las Canas.
By Vanessa Lee
Vanessa is the Vice President and Co-Founder of the Timmy Global Health chapter at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This blog post shares highlights from her chapter’s first medical service trip to Timmy’s in-country partner 7 Elements in Las Canas, Dominican Republic.